Author's note: This section contains graphic violence and profanity.
The abysmal laboratory stretched into a death-light; a microcosm of hell wrought with morbidity and suffering. It reminded her far too efficiently of the same Quintesson space station hell-hole. Everything from the tools and tables to the floor and computers to the cages was sanitized; stainless steel reflecting an unholy brightness.
Unearthly screams erupted from the lungs and throats of young pregnant girls. Their pleas and tears remain unheard and unanswered by their inhuman examiners.
Rusti covered her ears and searched for an exit. But the only exit was down a black hole outside the door. It churned slow like the passing of ages. Its event horizon drained everything around it. Down. Down.
Rusti slammed the door, turned and came eye-to-optic with a Quintesson's Face of Hatred.
Tentacles wreathed about its bloated form and the devil dropped is mouth. A sound poured forth, the voice of Primus, the voice of something once profound, now twisted by fanatical self-absorption and power lust.
The girls screamed . . . the girls screamed.
Rusti shot up and whipped the blankets off. It took several seconds to realize where she was. The stifling heat of Cratis' humid, rank atmosphere drenched her body with her own sweat.
Okay. Okay. She was okay. She woke in a tent near the medical area. Daylight glared through light-colored cloth. Three other people shared the same tent. But they had no dreams and heard nothing.
The same haunting shriek howled through the camp yet again and Rusti jumped out of her skin.
She WAS asleep, thanks!
Heedless of her lack of jeans, the girl snapped off the bed, stormed out the med tent, silently snarling at the baleful, outside world.
The camp stood dead silent. No whispering voices, even in adjoining sections of medical. No banging hammers or whining drills. No laughing kids or working Autobots. No adults shouted and no vehicles hummed.
The scream burst again, now a living thing demanding attention; a vocalized fire that would not die.
Distantly Rusti recognized Dr. Arcana's voice as he profusely swore and ordered someone to search for a tranquilizer. He and someone else argued heatedly as the shriek persisted, now an octave quieter.
Rusti almost returned to bed, her body suddenly heavy with weariness. As she turned, her feet encountered something more than dirt: grass. The girl scrunched down to touch the red-green foliage when the scream exploded with renewed intensity.
Half curious, mostly annoyed that no one else handled the situation, Rusti followed the sound down three tents and into a small, grey tent with a tied doorway. She glanced about, knowing she was not authorized for entry, and undid the knot.
Jasmine Goodwin lay strapped to a table lifted at a twenty-degree angle. Iron-energo shackles bound her wrists, ankles, knees and elbows. Drenched, dark hair, a pale face and wild eyes made her all but unrecognizable.
"YOU! GIRL! Get me the FUCK OUT OF HERE!"
"I can't Miss Goodwin. You know that."
"What I KNOW is misinterpreted! They're counting on it! And they won't listen. I hear the screams, pain, shock, horror." she hissed as though possessed. "Better run, young lady!"
Rusti felt awful for her. How many times had she sounded mad herself? She empathized and wished she could help. Footsteps from outside the tent warned her and Rusti squeezed between towering metal crates by the door. She heard Arcana ask an assistant about the door's untied knot then dismissed it. Someone else darted up with heavy boots; he found a tranquilizer.
"Don't you FUCKING TOUCH ME!" Jasmine spat at them and wriggled against her bonds. Rusti watched between crevices as Arcana measured the dosage.
"Miss Goodwin, I'm not sure if there's anything I can do for you. Your twin self is dying."
She screeched, deafening the air with the caterwaul Rusti heard in her dreams. Jasmine voiced the siren of hell, demanding her soul's release to the wind. "I DON'T GIVE A FLYING ASS! She's better off . . . don't you dare take me to Bare Anches! DID YOU HEAR ME? I WON'T GO! I WON'T! I WON'T!"
Rusti did not know anyone could scream as long and as loud as Goodwin.
Arcana calmly administered the shot to her neck and Goodwin spit in his face. But her voice died to a pitiful lament, moaning in a weeping voice about places and things wrought by demonic forces.
Arcana scanned her heart rate and blood pressure while the deranged woman murmured ceaselessly. He gave a hand-held pad to his assistant: "What's with the obsession about bare arches?"
"Anches." Arcana's assistant corrected. "And I'm not sure unless it has something to do with a book she was reading-or so I've been told."
Someone Rusti could not see burst into the tent, out of breath and shaking. "Dr. Arcana? Sir, the captain is vomiting again."
Arcana sighed heavily and he and his team of two rushed away.
Rusti emerged from hiding and approached the barely-subdued EDC officer. She no longer screamed, but the scream fixed her face with bold lines and wild eyes. Goodwin caught sight of the girl and demanded deeper breaths to speak.
"You . . . girl. Do you know terror? Have you ever looked into the face of horror?"
"Yes," Rusti whispered. "I know what it's like to be smothered in the face of evil."
"Ha! Ha, ha!" Goodwin looked positively ugly just then. "Then you MIGHT survive."
Rusti felt mocked. What did the crazed woman know? She was a victim of her own hysteria, not the product of a Virus or a disillusioned parent. The girl turned to leave when her eyes caught the flicker of unnatural light. But it was there then gone even when she took a double glance. Rusti waited and was rewarded as a square of light blinked against the tent wall.
Here. Gone, and back like a small flat-screen TV come to life on its own. Static scrambled barely-seen images and produced no sound.
The girl squatted before it and touched the square. Light filtered between her fingers just as if it really were a TV. Rusti gazed back at Goodwin, wondering if saw it too, but Goodwin was out.
The square disappeared.
She stared a long time, waiting yet again but when it did not return, Rusti went to bed, mentioning nothing of the event in case Goodwin's insanity was spreading.
* * *
Magnus and Rodimus traded turns keeping an optic on things. As if by magic, the camp descended into lifelessness. Those few who could function at all eventually settled at their station and the moment they rested their heads, they too passed out.
Magnus took up the night watch and noted with growing concern how Rodimus slipped further and further into a state of lethargy.
The moment Roddi sat down at the conference table in the Horizon, he rested his head and his systems instantly shut down.
Of all the camp, the Dinobots were least affected. Spooked by the lack of activity, however, the Dinobots avoided traveling between the ships except to retrieve energon rations. Six hours later, Magnus succumbed to extreme fatigue. His movements slowed and his mental processors took longer and longer until he could not make decisions. Just before the city commander retired to the Gabriel Genesis, he posted the Dinobots on watch.
* * *
Magnus was not aware, however, that the Dinobots really were not the only Autobots unaffected by the negative ion storm.
Cloudstreaker sat still, holding a nanite polymers plate while Quasar made pinpoint adjustments.
The protonic field made Cloud's arms and back prickle with a ticklish sensation while she and Quasar worked carefully realigning the ten-flat-pi accelerators to the navigational lines on board the Hannibal's Mark. It was a tricky and dangerous job and allowed no margins for either error or sound. Usually this kind of work was done in space. But since the Mark was grounded, Quasar was forced to reverse the electromagnetic drives from the ship's two front cannons and create a field of artificial anti-gravity. Caesar asked Cloudstreaker to assist her not because Fort Horizon's second-in-command was a technical genius, but because she knew how to remain still, steady and silent for hours. Quasar would have asked Doublecross, but Ultra Magnus already assigned her to a 'special' task.
Quasar liked Cloudstreaker. The Aerialbot femme easily understood physical signals and did not need to be told or asked twice. The two worked in absolute silence for a solid forty-four hours. They passed tools and supplies back and forth. They took breaks every ten hours without a word, even internal communication.
Proton phosphate was a by-product of the gasses used to coat the ten-flat-pi accelerators and the anti-grav field. Because it was a phosphate, it twinkled like fireflies around them. Quasar paused more than once while Cloudstreaker watched them burst to life. Like tiny fireworks, the proton phosphate exploded in magnificent colors or sparked in and out. The femme returned her attention to the vital task and Quasar inserted two newly-repaired accelerators into sub-zero degree chambers.
Forty-one hours in, their work lights flickered dangerously then died altogether. The two ladies silently gasped. Cloud clamped her hand over her mouth, her optics bright with fear. One sound, any sound, and the entire compartment could blow and take the camp with them.
Quasar froze then slowly backed off. Protonic phosphate 'fireflies' continued twinkling in the air, assuring the femmes the anti-gravity field held. A surge of phosphate sparks accelerated to a phenomenal number so that for three split seconds, the compartment lit with gold, silver blue and purple. The lights flickered for several more minutes before they finally stabilized.
Cloud's form sagged in relief and the two resumed their careful work. Just three accelerators left. The femmes kept a close optic on the lights from that point on. Cloud remained mindful of the power output, praying nothing endangered the work and thereby the refugee camp.
Three tense hours later, Quasar placed the last accelerator into its chamber, bolted, locked and sealed the core. She cleared the protonic field and the femmes drifted to the floor before the anti-grav field canceled.
So relived the job was done, Cloud had no words thereafter. Quasar sighed loudly and leaned against the railing. "I hope I don't have to do that again ANYTIME soon!"
Cloudstreaker stretched her sides and checked the time before leaving the Hannibal's Mark. Quasar followed her coworker to the outside world, now cast in darkness. No one, not so much as night-shift patrol, met them. Strange circular scars darkened the ground in pock marks. Small smouldering craters dotted the landscape and dark scrapes marred the surface along the port bow of the Armored Crest. Cloud stared through shifting optical sensors, surprised at the sudden abundance of plant life gown around the campsite. There was no plant life around the ships just forty-seven hours ago! She hauled out her scanner and took air-particle readings.
Ten thousand negative ion parques per squared area.
Wait. That can't be right. Cloudstreaker tracked several yards toward the camp's central fire pit, now a collection of glowing embers and took a new reading.
Ten thousand parques per quare area. The negative ion readings simply could not be wrong twice. Cloud's optics glowed with puzzlement.
Quasar caught up with her companion. "I don't get it," the femme's voice was low, cautious. "There's nobody up and awake."
Cloudstreaker wordlessly focused on the ships, finding Autobots, aliens and Humans sound asleep. "There is an overabundance of negative ions in the atmosphere, Quasar. Have you felt them?"
Quasar gave the other femme a scrupulous expression and from a subspace pocket procured her own small scanner. As it beeped, several insects answered its call with high-frequency pitches of their own.
The ion particles Cloud mentioned screamed with hyperactivity. The scanner picked up yet another power frequency and automatically switched tracers. Under the ground lay a bed of ionized lead-mercury. Quasar calculated the hyper-ionized atmosphere emitted several powerful static charges, acting like a magnetic field that attracted the lead-mercury and thereby refused to dissipate.
"I'm guessing the negative ions are affecting certain meta processor functions in everyone here but us."
"Why?" Cloudstreaker twisted her face in puzzlement.
"Most likely cuz you and I were in a protonic field for a number of hours and the build-up has permeated our exostructures, immunizing us against the affects."
Quasar paced between the Crest, the Mark and the Cold Refractor. No one scanned as critically injured, at least not among the vessels. But there were young trees and grasses where there were no plants at all just two days ago. Where did the plant life come from? How could it grow so quickly?
A shape slipped from shadow to ship just beyond the femme's visual scans. Quasar transformed to fox mode and gave chase. Fearing moonlight betrayed her silver shape, she ducked under the Refractor and sniffed for clearance.
All clear. She circled the Mark, spotted her prey and chased the mystery figure toward the Interrogator. Once there, Quasar doubled back and with a graceful leap, summer-saulted in front of her game. She produced her weapon: "Stop!"
The figure obeyed and she stepped into the light, meeting Dinobot Swoop optic-to-optic. The pteranadon looked incredibly guilty and hid two energon cubes behind his back.
Quasar flinched. "Hey, you're awake. Why aren't you asleep like everyone else? And what's going on here? Who planted the grasses and trees?"
Snarl's voice answered instead: "They all sleep." He rounded the Vertical Horizon, energon rations glowed softly in his hands.
Quasar heard Cloud's gentle footfalls behind her. "Why's everyone asleep?"
"Dinobots not sleepy," Swoop's higher-pitched voice sounded far more cheerful than his brother's.
"Not like wimpy Autobots, either, Swoop. Not like bossy Ultra Magnus. Come. Grimlock says we not stay."
Quasar squared her shoulders. "Hold on a second, you two. There's something weird going on here. What's happened to everybody? Where's the night crew?"
"Snarl not know nothing. You come. Ask him, Grimlock." Snarl turned away and Swoop followed. Quasar considered logic pointless on the Dinobots and tagged after.
Cloudstreaker, on the other hand, thought a flashlight flickered from the right. She glanced around, half expecting either Human or Autobot to appear within visual range. But when Quasar called for her, the femme turned away and the light flickered again. She caught it in time. Her core froze as an image lit the Horizon's belly. Two seconds of a history she could not pinpoint played like an old film. The image sent surges down the femme's backside. "No! Oh, Primus, no!"
Quasar called for Cloud again and the femme bounded through tall grasses after her companions.
Swoop sailed above while Cloudstreaker and Snarl stumbled about the uneven terrain. Quasar picked her way about, sniffing for old Dinobot signature trails. Rocky, jagged and unpredictable, the landscape was too dark for Cloudstreaker to navigate in auto mode. Unlike Snarl who had large feet kept his footing better, the she slipped and staggered over large sharp rocks. Quasar fell behind then caught up once or twice whenever she spotted new-growth trees and shrub. She took readings in fox mode while her companions kept moving.
"Too weird," she muttered to herself. "This can't be right. My scanners can be right." She caught up with Snarl and Cloudstreaker.
Swoop coasted silently above her. He dipped one wing down to ask: "What you do?".
"Trying to figure out why there's so much vegetation."
The pteranadon dropped, transformed and walked beside her. "Grimlock ask too. Him and him, Sludge stay by pretty rock-flowers. Not know why they there. Me Swoop saw them first."
Quasar gave the pteranadon a side-long glance and considered Swoop too much a child-like mind to know what he was really saying. "Flowers? What kind of flowers did you find?"
"Bright glowing flowers. Not squishy like Optimus Prime's flowers."
Crystalline sort, Quasar figured. There used to be several species of crystalline flowers with their own minute power sources on Paratron. Some species even changed color from one part of the day to the next. Considering Cratis' erratic composition, Quasar was not surprised to find crystalline plant growth here.
The four Autobots half stumbled, half slid along a rocky slope into a valley of jutting sharp rocks and twenty-foot cacti reaching upward with dehydrated twisted trunks. Limbs stretched in bulbous knots punctuated by several deadly two-foot barbs.
Sludge, Slag and Grimlock in robot mode, sat in a shallow pit surrounded by glowing crystalline flowers. Had she not heard it herself, Quasar would never have believed it; Grimlock was laughing.
Swoop and Snarl joined their Dinobot brothers and Grimlock praised them for the rations they brought. Cloudstreaker approached with trepidation and Quasar lagged behind, bewildered. She swept the area with her scanner and her optics as she eased downhill.
According to her scanner, the shallow pit and the flowers were the same age as the plants and trees around the refugee camp. And those readings were off kilter compared to readings produced by herself, Cloudstreaker and the Dinobots. Quasar wished she had been smart enough to take readings of other Autobots in the camp.
Sludge greeted her with a brightened expression. "Quasar come play?" His optics glowed as brilliantly as the flowers around them and for a moment, all attention was on the femme scientist.
Quasar took in Sludge's imposing size. Whether or not he was childlike, it was obvious bronto-whatever-Dinobot was no ballerina. "Um . . . sure. But um, how come you guys aren't asleep like everybody else?"
Grimlock grunted and belched. "Me Grimlock and him, Slag and him, Sludge and him, Swoop and Snarl, too, we not Earth babies. No need lots of sleep.
"We play here." Swoop drank a bit of his rationed energon, holding it with both hands then grinned.
Visions of the Dinobots playing 'house' hit Quasar; it seemed wrong. She unintentionally winced. "Oh . . . kay. What's with the flowers, guys?"
Cloudstreaker knelt before a clump of flowers pulsing red and orange. She held her fingers aloft, unsure whether or not to pick one. "They're precious, aren't they?"
Grimlock leaned forward from his seat of rocks and dirt. "Cloudstreaker, you no touch flowers," he warned. "Him, Snarl stepped and burned foot. It okay now. Me Grimlock make it better. Flowers pretty, but burn bad."
"Really?" Quasar glanced from the Dinobot leader to the nearest patch of glowing crystals. She added a power booster to her scanner.
The science 'toy' bleeped now and again and Quasar took a number of readings from one patch of flowers to another and kept shaking her head.
"What?" Cloudstreaker finally asked, "what is it?"
"It's not possible. That's what it is."
Slag pointed at Quasar, "what her mean?" he asked Grimlock. "What you mean?"
Quasar ignored them for a moment longer and knelt beside the one flower patch behind Cloudstreaker and with a laser tool, clipped one long-leafed plant from its rocky soil. Composed of a lattice of minerals and silicon, the stem, bent slightly under the flower head's weight. She looked at her companions with bewilderment. "Guys, this is raw energon in a diluted form. But . . . it shouldn't be able to do stuff like this. I mean, energon is cubical, not . . . not spherical. And the stem . . . this is comprised of minerals and cybertonium. But I can't understand how this is possible."
Grimlock grunted and took a last swig of rations. "It not matter. Dinobots no care if flowers not right."
Quasar glared at the Dinobot leader over the top of her scanner. "I know it doesn't mean anything to you, Grimlock but this is important. These things shouldn't be able to grow like this."
"THIS NOT FUN!" Slag complained. "Need to move. Want to play! Want to fight!"
Grimlock glowered at him as only the Dinobot leader could. Slag fell silent, moping like a scolded child told to sit still.
Quasar scowled and pushed herself off her knees. "You know, something must make these flowers grow." Silence met her hypothesis. Her optics lit up with an idea. "What if there's something underground that reacts with the ion storms? I think the ionized lead-mercury underneath the camp is causing everyone to sleep. Maybe there's something here that can redirect the negative effect."
"We look for better scanner?" Grimlock sounded hopeful.
The idea of Dinobots lumbering around the camp for something as small and delicate as a scanner frightened Quasar. She winced outwardly. Still, it was necessary to get a broader scanning range. "Grimlock, do you and the other Dinobots have thermo and radioactive scanning abilities?"
"Therms?" Grimlock tilted his head. "Me, Grimlock and Dinobots no scan therms and radee-o-stuffs."
"Me, Slag, too!" The restless triceratops shouted. "No scan therms want to play!"
Quasar moaned and her fingers pressed against her temple. Cloudstreaker watched her femme companion struggle for a solution and wished she could help. But she did not have any equipment sensitive enough for Quasar's needs. "Is it that you need an area-wide scan, Quasar, or a deep scan?"
"Both. But I'm too close to the ground, here. There's too much interference."
Grimlock stood and pointed at the lady scientist. "You need scan from sky? Me, Grimlock tell him, Swoop to take scan from sky."
Cloudstreaker shook her head. "That's really sweet of you, Grimlock. But Swoop can't scan for what she needs. He-"
"But he can CARRY my scanner!" Quasar jumped and gave Grimlock a big hug. "You're the best!"
A little embarrassed in front of the other Dinobots, Grimlock pretended to scratch a non-existent itch. "Me, Grimlock getting to be lady's man."
Swoop kept very still while Quasar strapped her scanner to the crest of his head. He seemed nervous and did not move until Quasar stood back, satisfied all would be well. "Okay! Transform and hoover just above the flowers, Swoop. I'll let you know when to come down."
Swoop shifted modes and allowed the air currents to lift him high enough so that he glided from current to current before circling the area. "Me, Swoop, see camp from here!" he declared. "See rock forest that him, Ultra Magnus and me and him Repugnus went to."
Quasar waited for Swoop to name a few other features of the land: long "stiff" grasses and hills with strange stones. She finally cut him off. "Swoop, what do you see here besides us? Do you see flowers?
Swoop tightened his circle, flying above them like an oversized vulture. "Me see two circles. Big circle and littler circle. Ground moves."
Quasar and Cloud looked to one another while Grimlock verbalized their curiosity. Quasar had her suspicions, but said nothing. She ordered Swoop to land and detached the scanner. The pteranadon sagged in relief as though a huge boulder were removed from his head.
Quasar snatched Grimlock's former seat. She tapped into the scanner's memory circuits and "re-text" the readouts.
The rest of the group waited. Slag fidgeted until he sighed, impatient. "Me, Slag say this stupid. We go play-fight."
"Me, Grimlock say we stay put, wait for Quasar-"
"ME, SLAG BORED!"
Still in his robot mode, Grimlock assumed a daring fighting stance, glaring at Slag. "ME, GRIMLOCK NO CARE IF SLAG DIE BRAINLESS. YOU STAY LIKE ME AND HIM, SLUDGE AND HIM, SWOOP!"
Cloudstreaker did not like the expression Slag gave Grimlock. She was sure, however, if Slag stepped out of line, Grimlock would handle the situation.
Quasar, largely unaffected by the moment, studied her scanner until she leapt to her feet. "Great Primus on High!"
"What?!" Cloudstreaker was glad for the break in uneasy silence.
Quasar shook her head. "I don't know how or why, but we're sitting on a small deposit of metallic hydrogen! That's why there's Cybertonium here! The hydrogen is encased in the stuff! Almost as though it were manufactured!"
Cloudstreaker looked to the Dinobot leader to see if he understood anything Quasar said. Grimlock tilted his head to one side. He looked silly trying to let a thought through even if his face gave little to no indication of an expression. Quasar glanced at Slag, still sitting slumped, bored, but silent.
"Well . . . what do we do?"
"Dig. If we can get to the metallic hydrogen and break it free, chances are the positive energies in it will disperse the negative ions."
"Dig?" Cloud glanced around, bewildered.
"Wait!" Quasar jumped down, tucking the scanner away. "We need to coordinate this better. Uhh . . . " she glanced from one Dinobot to another. "Swoop, help me gather up the flowers. Grimlock, you're in charge of the dig."
Sludge stared at the ground under his foot. "We dig?"
Much to his delight, Sludge got to dig first. Swoop and Quasar plucked the flowers and deposited them several yards from the excavation crew. At first Quasar feared the crystalline flowers would lose their color, crack and fall to pieces. But Swoop, who had seen Optimus Prime and Rusti replant flowers outside Fort Max, automatically placed the crystalized plants in the ground. He didn't understand why Quasar thought him a genius. After all, everybody replants flowers.
It took as long to replant the crystalline flowers as it did for Cloudstreaker and the other Dinobots to dig deep enough for Quasar to find her treasure.
Quasar allowed Sludge to inch her down the pit. Swoop scaled down the dirt wall beside her and they touched the bottom. Cloudstreaker and Grimlock watched with avid interest while Quasar scanned and rescanned the area back and forth. She transformed to fox mode and scraped one area, then another, her broad feet kicked up several interesting items, but nothing she aimed for. Swoop spotted several rocks sparkling in the moonlight. He swept them up as his Femme companion centered on a target. Quasar stood on her hind legs, her olfactory sensors sniffed one wall above her. She transformed and scanned with her toy. The second it beeped, she shoved her hand in and pried through dirt and rock digging a long hole until she procured a heavy silver stone. She found a second rock then five additional regular-sized silver stones. She secured them into a subspace pocket.
"Swoop, can you fly me out of here?"
"Me and you no dig here anymore?" the pteranadon held several other sparkling rocks but he was disappointed there would be no others
"Maybe later," Quasar half-promised. Swoop obligated and brought her back to the pit's ledge.
Grimlock wormed his way between Sludge and Slag. "Me, Grimlock, no understand. You say we dig. We digged. And you take only little rocks?"
"They're more than just rocks, Grimlock. They'll wake everyone up."
Grimlock started to say something but Slag beat him to it: "NO! Me no be bossed by boring Autobots! They says, 'Slag go here' and here Slag goes. 'Slag do this' and Slag do that. Me, Slag no want to go here and do this no more!"
Cloudstreaker grew nervous again. She didn't think she and Quasar could execute the plan by themselves. She tried to think of a good but simple argument to convince the Dinobots they were needed. But nothing came to mind.
Fortunately Quasar already knew how to convince the pig-headed prehistoric bully wanna-be's. She scrutinized each of them. "I guess, then, Rusti will sleep forever and you won't get to play football-ever again."
Grimlock gasped. His reaction was so comical it took every ounce of Quasar's self discipline not to laugh.
Sludge, however, took the moment to heart and fell to his knees, mournful and speechless. Swoop looked like an abandoned child. He glanced from Quasar to Grimlock hoping someone would save the moment.
Grimlock regained his composure and brooded thoughtfully. "Dinobots strongest of whole camp," he solemnly stated. "That mean we have responsibility."
Slag snorted. "Me, Slag no CARE for responsibility! ME WANT TO PLA-"
Grimlock transformed to Dino mode and roared so that loose rubble in the shallow pit vibrated. Swoop and Cloudstreaker covered their audios and grimaced.
But Slag remained stubborn. He snarled, lunged and rammed into Grimlock's middle.
Grimlock landed on his backside, kicked Slag off with both hind legs and leapt back to his feet. Slag landed like a cat and scampered back, spearing Grimlock once gain. Grimlock shifted to robot form and braced himself against yet another assault. Now they were head-to-head; an immovable object against an irresistible force; neither able to gain ground.
Then Grimlock gave way just enough to use Slag's momentum against him. He swung Slag around, tripped and flipped the Triceratops on his back.
Grimlock finished the move with an elbow to Slag's neck.
Slag laid still, taking in air. The look in his optics sent surges down the femmes' backs. Grimlock sat on Slag, pinning the Dinobot's arms to the ground and stared with a darkening optic visor. "Me, Grimlock know you Slag not happy." Grimlock growled low, but without anger. "Me know him, Snarl not happy, too. Everybody not happy anymore. Him, Sludge, and him, Swoop scared. We not go home. But you, Slag and him, Sludge, and him, Snarl and him, Swoop and me, Grimlock, we all alive. We all strong. We . . ."
Grimlock released Slag who sat up, face locked in frustration. For the first time in anybody's recollection, Quasar heard the Dinobot leader choke. Under all that armor and tough-guy king-of-the-mountain facade, there lay a real soul; every bit as vulnerable and uncertain as everyone else. "we. . . we take care of all Autobots. All Hu . . . mans. Not because they say 'go here, do this.' but because WE CAN."
Realization hit him and at first Slag lit up as if someone switched on his brain. Then his expression fell, ashamed.
To save the moment, Grimlock added, "Me, Grimlock know all frustrating. Work boring. No time to play. But we strong. We keep forward. We take care of Autobots."
* * *
They flew back to camp. The Dinobots thundered in their landing and Quasar, riding on Grimlock's back, was never happier to be on the ground. Cloudstreaker landed just outside the camp and caught up with them as Quasar whipped out her scanner. The Dinobot leader ordered each of his troop to take a look around-and to remain quiet.
Cloud thought reconnaissance was a good idea and quietly entered the Vertical Horizon. Members from all fortress-cities lay on flats or in recharging chambers, dead asleep like animals in hibernation.
She found Jazz in a chair, slumped over the Horizon's communications panel. Opposite him Slingshot lay on the floor, face-down.
Several Humans and aliens dotted the floor curled up or snuggled under blankets. The whole ship felt more like a morgue than a space-faring vessel.
Where was Rodimus Prime?
Cloudstreaker left the bridge and peeked from room to room until she found the conference room. Gryph lay on the floor near a bulkhead, offline. Near her lay Trinket and near her lay EDC officer Kempler Brynes.
Roddi lay with his head on the table, arms about his face. Cloud knelt next to him. "Commander?" she whispered. "Rodimus? Rodimus?"
He half-roused and although his dim optics rested on her, Rodimus did not register anything.
"Rodimus, Quasar might have a solution, Sir."
No reply. Roddi slumped back, falling to an even deeper sleep. Cloudstreaker stood and laid a hand on his upper arm. Rodimus felt slightly overheated. Knowing she could do nothing about it, Cloudstreaker left the Horizon and examined the Gabriel Genesis.
Everyone onboard also slept to the point of unconsciousness. But on the Genesis, she found Ultra Magnus, resting at the controls. His huge form covered the entire panel.
Cloudstreaker laid a timid hand on his left shoulder. Her laser core raced as her hand connected with his body. She felt his warmth and withdrew. Magnus looked so peaceful; his mass covered the control panel as though he owned it. She loved the strength of his body language, even in sleep. Cloudstreaker lingered a moment longer, wishing she had the courage to tell him how she felt. But she did not feel worthy of his attention.
The femme jet withdrew, now fearful he'd wake and demand why she touched him-even if her head said he would not. Cloud reached for a digipad covered by his hand and flipped through the report, scribbled out by Perceptor's extensive language. She could make no sense of it and set it back. Reluctantly, Cloudstreaker shook herself from the moment; Quasar and the others were waiting.
Upon returning to the group, Cloud found Quasar carved a large circle toward the center of camp. She kept the ignition point away from anything that could catch on fire. Quasar also took care to remove the surrounding grass.
One by one each Dinobot returned with the same report: all quiet, all asleep. Swoop glided down as his brothers reported back to Grimlock. He allowed Slag to have his say about the Frostbite and the Razor Lady before reporting about weird noises from an acid river far away from the camp.
Sludge managed to return without stepping on anyone or breaking anything and talked about the Thermosphere. Everybody snored. Snarl returned last with a bit of disturbing news.
"Me, Snarl saw marks on dirt; crushed weeds."
"What make them marks?" Grimlock asked.
"Me not know. Big marks, smell salty-dirty."
"Hmmm . . ." Grimlock tried to look thoughtful. "Me ask animal?"
"Animal no salt-smell. Not Human. Big for Human."
Quasar withdrew the stones and reoriented her scanner. "Guys, is everyone in the camp still asleep?
Slag pointed from his direction. "All sleepy heads that way."
"Everybody sleep." Sludge confirmed.
Cloudstreaker frowned. "I tried to awaken Rodimus Prime, but he won't come out of it."
Quasar nodded as she adjusted her calculation. She clicked the scanner off and made optical contact with each Dinobot and Cloudstreaker. "Alright. I will try to keep this simple. The big storm we had-do you guys remember the storm?" She watched them nod. "Well ..." keep it simple, she reminded herself, "it cast a magic spell on the whole camp. These special rocks will break the spell. But only you guys and Cloud can break the rocks, okay?"
Slag could not resist: "We smash rocks?"
"No. They can't be smashed, Slag. They're solidified metallic hydrogen which is pure positive energy." She lost them but kept going. The hydrogen is inside the rock. Cybertonium is on the outside-"
"Ooh!" Swoop lit up excitedly, "like an egg!"
"Yes!" Quasar smiled with relief. "Yes! Exactly! These are hydrogen eggs and only you guys can open them with your fire-breath. But it has to be VERY hot and right on the rocks. Can you guys do that?"
"Dinobots kick ass," Grimlock declared. "Little rocks have no chance."
Quasar positioned the Dinobots according to their strengths, placing Cloud between Grimlock and Sludge as the Distribution Point. She then transformed and found a small, cozy place of protection.
"Ready?" she called.
"Dinobots ready." Grimlock answered evenly.
"On the count of three, guys-" and she wondered if they COULD count to three. "ONE. TWO. THREE!"
The temperature streaked five hundred and seventy degrees in seconds. All plant life nearby smouldered and the thinner hauls of nearby vessels softly glowed red as the temperature increased ten then a hundred fold in yet another couple of seconds. Quasar choked in the stifling atmosphere. The metallic hydrogen reached critical temperature. Cloudstreaker opened her subspace conduits just as the hydrogen and cybertonium exploded. She expanded the surge around the camp and across the plain.
The resulting explosion knocked her and the Dinobots flat. A reactive blast of cold air rushed over them as the cybertonium shells melted and the metallic hydrogen vaporized. The atmosphere, once burdened by heated negative ions, lifted. With the release of hydrogen, a clean, sweet rain followed and the group instantly felt better.
Grimlock laughed like a ticklish little kid. "Me, Grimlock say we do that again."
* * *
Rodimus couldn't shake the cold surges pricking his body like millions of needles. How long had he been out? It seemed days. He lolled his head to the right and stared into space. That is, he looked at shapes and colors, but his mind registered nothing.
What day was it? What time was it? What needed to be done? Who was on patrol?
Up! Get up and move! His inner self commanded, his lazy side told him not to worry about anything-disaster would come whether or not he was prepared.
Rodimus sat up, shuddering. Why did his exostructure hurt so much? He touched his forehead and found his temperature slightly higher than normal. He staggered among those still asleep, amazed he kept his footfalls light. Upon reaching the Horizon's control panel, Roddi collapsed into the navigator's chair. He felt crappy. "Horizon," he called the ship, "status report."
Rodimus could easily go back to sleep. But pure will wrought of a solid responsibility gave the Autobot leader the strength necessary to force himself awake. Rodimus kicked the consol. "HORIZON!" he called more loudly, "status report!"
Static. Like that one god-awful summer in 2015 where not one drop of rain blessed the Cascades and Central City.
Static-a streak of stubbornness staring at him as though it were flipping him off. It only roused Roddi's ire and he kicked it again. The static cleared once, flickered and cleared again to offer a visual of the immediate area.
OUTSIDE TEMPERATURE EIGHTY-SEVEN DEGREES FAHRENHEIT. BAROMETRIC PRESSURE AT-
"Never mind the stupid weather report. Give me camp status. What's on patrol who's on shift?"
OUTER PARAMETER PATROL: DINOBOT SWOOP, DINOBOT SNARL. DINOBOT SLAG. INTERIOR PATROL:-
"Never mind!" Roddi snarled, now fully awake. "I'll find out for myself."
He abandoned the chair and stepped over one person or another. The camp welcomed him with an eerie silence. Rodimus passed the Hannibal's Mark and encountered the Armored Crest as Kup came staggering down the plank.
Roddi caught his friend and mentor as the old bot stumbled and nearly fell. "Little too much radium in that last drink, Kup."
The 'old timer' drew two deep puffs of air and stared at Rodimus as though waking from a dream. "The ion storm."
"Yeah," Rodimus helped him to stand straight and Kup raised his optics to the sky.
"Something's not right. There shouldn't be grass here."
Roddi startled with realization. "You're right!" the two of them examined the camp up and down, taking in sights of brush and small trees, weeds and a few vines grown over the Confiscator and the Cold Refractor. Kup disappeared back into the Crest and returned with a scanner. The two Autobots transformed and drove slowly along the roadways between ships, camp sites and tents. One or two at a time, Autobots and Humans slowly came to life. Children wondered out, unaided or watched. They stared at the sky with sleepy, empty eyes. Adults stumbled out much of way Kup did, peering at the sky with squinting eyes. Autobots came to life, one transformed from vehicular mode and stretched his compacted form to relieve kinks.
Rodimus and Kup ended their assessment tour, finding Grimlock and Quasar sitting on a slab of rock. The Dinobot noisily devoured a ration of energon while the femme greeted the chief of security and Prime with a grim smile.
"Morning. Or it would be on Mars."
"What, uh . . ." Rodimus glanced about again, seeing dark clouds brimming on the horizon. A cool moist breeze brushed grasses in the valley nearby. "What . . . what's . . ."
"I know it sounds wacko," Quasar quickly interrupted. "And you're welcome to ask Perceptor to verify my readings, Commander, but um . . . according to my scans, the plant life is four years old."
Kup and Rodimus stared at her, dumbfounded. "Look, she continued, "All the readings among us-the Autobots, the ships, we've all aged four Earth years."
"That's . . . not possible."
"That CAN'T be possible," Kup added. "Not even the slime-headed glitch-infected Quintessons have the power to push time forward like that."
Roddi tried to fathom what she was saying, "we-you mean we've been asleep for four years?"
"No. I'm saying time has passed four years. That this area and our bodies have aged over night by four years."
It was too much of a logic jump for Rodimus. Even if the plant growth was proof of the time lapse.
Little at a time, the refugee camp came to life. People asked the same questions for several hours until they decided it was better to spend their energy cleaning, taking inventory and check-once again-all things for repairs.
Rodimus received a fair amount of good news throughout the day. No casualties reported. No damage other than what the ion storm left. And amazingly, the Dinobots were in good spirits. More than that, Snarl had taken up baby sitting on his own, volunteering to play with the little children while Slag was more eager to help with heavy loads.
Rodimus visited Arcee later that evening. Magnus was already there, talking quietly. Arcee softly laughed. It sounded music to Roddi's audios. Geeze, how long had it been since he heard that? Decades.
Roddi felt intrusive and backed out the doorway. "Sorry," he muttered.
"No, Rodimus, don't go." Arcee pleaded. "Come sit with us. Ultra Magnus was telling me of his little outing at the canyon. Have you seen or talked to Cloudstreaker? Is she better?"
"Yeah," Roddi replied wearily. To him, the morning was million years ago. "She's doing fine. She, Quasar and the Dinos found a way to break the depression cycle. How are you, Arcee?" How's stuff?"
"Stuff is fine." the femme answered after reflecting a moment. "In fact, I've considered a new paint job. I know it's not feasible right now. But I think a change would be good."
"You deserve a change." Roddi automatically agreed. When you're ready, just let me know."
No smiles passed between them. Arcee read weariness on Roddi's face, Roddi read determination on hers.
An uncomfortable silence stifled the room until Roddi stood. "Well, it's been. I have a few other people to yak at. Mags, I'm giving you afternoon shift tomorrow."
"You're not doing another all-nighter, are you, Rodimus?"
"Need to. I want to start preparations for leaving with or without Optimus." he ignored Magnus' and Arcee's disconcerted looks.
Rusti woke groggy, lighter and less cranky than last time. She batted her eyes and sat up, half listening to a mother and child in the next tent.
"But, Mama, it's my favorite."
"I know it is, Greg, but it's too little for you."
"But I wore it yesterday."
"I said 'no', Greg. Here, wear your brother's."
the little boy whined and Rusti empathized. How many hand-me-downs did she wear until she insisted on her own styles? Dezi's clothes really weren't that BAD. But they were Dezi's clothes. Rusti yawned and stretched and noticed her nails were longer.
A bath or shower sounded wonderful and Rusti realized how much she missed having her own bathroom. She collected her exosuit, slipped on the clothes and made her way to the restroom in the Kummay.
Many showers there, but not one bathtub.
Rusti settled at the campfire for breakfast. The Kummay's kitchen was currently part of someone's experiment so everything was served outside.
Rusti paused before attempting the hot cereal. "Where'd all the plants come from?" she asked no one.
"I dunno." another girl shrugged.
Rusti recognized Lucille and could not take another bite of food. "Ohmigod," she whispered. "Lucille?"
Lucille returned Rusti's expression. "Rusti? What happened to your hair-oh goodness! Look at your nails!"
Rusti spotted Daniel two ships away. She all but dropped her dish and dashed into the Hannibal's Mark, her heart pounding against her bones.
Rusti berated herself for being such a wimp.
She spied past the plank post to see if Daniel still advanced in her direction.
Kindly enough, Headmaster Pointblank caught Daniel and the two tumbled into conversation. Rusti slipped off the plank and scampered under the Mark. From there, she dashed behind other ships until she met the Horizon and scrambled aboard.
The girl squeezed into a corner and caught her breath, shuddering off the anxiety.
Rusti squeaked and jumped then rolled her eyes as the goose bumps subsided. "Roddi."
"Hey, what's going on?"
"Oh, my dad's out there. I didn't want-you know."
"Yeah. I know. Though, I don't think he'll bother you for a while. "
She couldn't look at him. "I feel like a wuss."
The corners of Roddi's lip components tightened. "A smart person picks their own battles, Lady-friend.
"He's here, Commander," Quasar peeked in and Roddi stood.
"Is everyone here, now?'
"Not me." Quasar joked. She slipped in and tip-tapped her way into the adjoining room.
"What's going on, Roddi?"
"Bored meeting," Rodimus answered, emphasizing the appropriate word. Rusti smiled and wondered if anyone would scold her for finding a corner and sitting in. She quietly ran after him and slipped through the doors as they hissed shut.
All the head staff and one or two assistant-commanders sat around the table. Perceptor sat at the far-end seat, while a make-shift 3-D imager squatted on the table before him. Rusti could see the imager as long as Titanium did not lean back too far.
Convoy whispered something to Cloudstreaker who nodded in response. She looked uncomfortable and weary.
"Okey-dokey, Perceptor," Roddi called. "We're all audios."
"Ehem, thank you." Perceptor stood and straightened a digipad before beginning. "As unbelievable as it appears, time has accelerated by four point two years. The cause of this phenomena is unknown. Blaster, Redial and Ambience have all verified through interplanetary subspace radio that similar events have happened throughout this sector.'
'The strangest aspect, however, is all living things have aged; non-living things appear to be unaffected. This concludes that age is the only serious result of the time advancement."
Titanium leaned a little more froward permitting Rusti a clear view of several star systems from the imager. "Does that mean, Perceptor, that the ships and supplies might be undamaged?"
Quasar answered in his stead: "All supplies that are packed and preserved- like the organic food packs and cordial and high-ratio energon have remained intact. I talked to Trinket 'nd First Aid this morning. They said even medical supplies have been unaffected." Here Quasar caught Rodimus at optical contact. "It seems someone or something has kept watch over us."
Roddi took no comfort in it. Reliving a life-long nightmare, Rodimus knew it was a matter of time before he watched his people die.
Strike Back slumped in his seat, his face downcast in a scowl. "Great. That's nifty. So . . . why don't we head back to Earth? Maybe things have changed."
"Not likely to happen," Rodimus grunted.
Strike Back leaned forward. "Why?" he challenged. "Are you able to look into that . . . crystal ball of yours-the Matrix-and tell us what the Quints are doing? Cuz if not, chances are it'd be a good time to race back and kick their tentacles off our real estate. And as we just heard, everything's aged. All the humans are older, now."
Rodimus could not look Strike Back in the optic. He did not have to answer to the city commander. He knew nothing. Not a damn thing. "We don't have enough information-"
"Then why not send a reconnaissance?!"
"Chill out, man!" Jazz ordered. "We don't got the resources for that kinda mission yet and I for one ain't about to hang-tie some spark out in the middle a' nowhere while we got Quints doggin' our backsides."
"Jazz is right," Magnus agreed. "And I say we stay put, just a while longer and wait for Optimus Prime."
Strike Back exploded out of his chair, "ARE YOU PEOPLE CRAZY?! OPTIMUS PRIME IS MOST LIKELY DEAD AND YOU WANT TO WAIT FOR HIM?!"
"Sit down, Strike Back," Roddi was surprised he kept his own voice even.
"Na-uh, NO WAY! This is STUPID! We're dying out here! Or hadn't you noticed our casualties list lately?! We get our butts kicked, then we're tossed on this miserable, forsaken planet with creature-eating crystals, crappy weather and signs of an abandoned Decepticon base! And here YOU sit, staring off into NOWHERE, doing NOTHING!"
Rodimus turned wholly to the former Mars city commander. He was in no mood to start-or finish-an argument. "I SAID, SIT. DOWN."
Strike Back obeyed only because what crossed the Autobot leader's face frightened him.
Quasar saw it, too and shifted nervously in her chair. She wanted to examine Rodimus, wondering why-WHY First Aid and Perceptor did not do so earlier. She debated asking him here, but thought better of it.
Rodimus forced himself to calm and cast his optics on the table. His hand, however, flexed and fisted several times. He itched inside as though thousands of bugs crawled around his circuitry. "Jazz, see to it someone heads up a grass-cutting crew. If or when we take off, I don't want to start a fire. Mags, set up another aerial recon, would ya? Gryph, I'd like to know if we have anything that might be saleable or used to trade for goods and services. I don't care what it might be; equipment, tools, energon, even someone's fashionable underwear. To survive, we might need it later on."
Kup searched Roddi's face. "Rodimus, just how long do you think we'll be staying here?"
The room fell cold with anticipatory silence and Rusti hoped no one heard her breathe. Roddi finally looked up, glancing first at Magnus then Kup and finally at Jazz. Which one would he lose first? "Until I feel we can't."
Magnus frowned at the ambiguous statement.
"WHAT, MAGNUS?" Roddi growled. He did not meet the Major-General's optics.
Magnus tried to be subtle but Rodimus always saw right through it. Damn him! "Rodimus, it's easier if we can plan a specific time to leave-it takes a while to break camp."
Rodimus stared at Magnus like a snake.
Rusti covered her mouth, dying to say something but not daring to.
When Roddi spoke again, it came slow, icy. "You really screwed up, Magnus. You had a really great opportunity-more than once-to eliminate me and Prime." He stood, palms flat on the table surface, optics glowing toward purple. "We may all die."
Magnus felt pinned. Everyone's optics lay on him. "I tried, Rodimus. I really did." he watched Rodimus' optics narrow. "The Matrix would not let me."
Rusti inwardly moaned. Did he really have to say that?
Rodimus smirked, bowed and shook his head. "It's the Matrix's fault. It's Optimus' fault. It's Primus' fault-it's GOD'S FAULT!"
His optics darkened further and pushing his chair aside, Prime abandoned the room.
The table of Autobots sat in silence until Strike Back drew a deep breath. "He's right, Ultra Magnus. We need to stop relying on him and Optimus Prime so much. Our society is stifled. Relying on two unstable leaders and some artifact has led us nowhere. And like Rodimus admitted, he doesn't know what he's doing."
Magnus scowled. "It's more than an artifact, Strike Back. And Optimus and Rodimus are our leaders for a reason."
"Oh. I see they have you well-trained, Magnus. You'd do anything they ask. Would you murder for them, too?"
"Hey!" Jazz snapped. "That's enough!"
Magnus might have said something in his own defense, but the Major-General's thoughts were too preoccupied on Rodimus to dignify the younger Autobot's verbal challenges
Strike Back snorted and scowled. "Well, then, what about you, Jazz? How long have you followed Prime so blindly? It's all about that Matrix, is it not? We're all supposed to do what the Primes say because they have this . . . mystical hold over us. Why? What's so special about it? Does anyone know anything about the Matrix? Is it some chunk from a planet or did the Quintessons make it or what? Is it so sacred that we dare not ask ourselves about its history? GEEZE, PEOPLE! What if it's just a friggin' fancy circuit? Have you thought that maybe the Matrix is just a fake, a ploy to control the population; that it's just a tool used to perpetuate a lie?"
"IT'S NOT A LIE!" Rusti called from the floor.
Magnus buried his head. Everyone else reflected surprise.
Strike Back ducked under the table to find her and looked annoyed. "Tell me something, Miss Witwicky, are you so gullible that you'd do anything to protect our endearing leaders like their personal puppy dog?"
"You've got a mouth on you, Strike Back," the girl seethed. "And while your questions are valid, your motives are not. Don't think that no one else notices them.
"I'm hoping someone notices. I think we all need to question what our leaders are doing. How do we know they're not planning something that's detrimental? How can we even trust them? I think we should appoint someone to oversee their plans so that the rest of us know we're not being misled."
Gryph finally intervened at that point: "You speak like an insubordinate, Strike Back."
The Mars city commander leaned toward her. "We need to start thinking, not blindly follow someone else around."
Magnus shot him a dirty look. "No one is forced to remain, Strike Back. We're all free to come or leave at any time. You know that as well as anyone else."
Strike Back shrugged. "I dunno, Magnus. Never seen anyone actually try." he forced a laugh. "I mean, where would we all go, anyway? Back to Earth? Cybertron? Why does no one question what the two Primes do with their time and our resources? What was the reason for building so many cities on Earth? And why one on Mars?"
Titanium shook his head. "Not too bright a question there, Strike. It's rather obvious that the entire Autobot population could not fit in Fort Max."
Strike Back flashed his optics. "All I'm saying is that all that time and expense could have gone to programs, advancing our technology. Or better yet, setting up greater defenses against the Quintessons. Has anyone wondered WHY neither Prime thought about protecting us from the Quints? Why is it the two Primes find it so necessary to lord over us? Don't we have any say in what goes on in our own society?"
Rusti set her face hard and Magnus gathered his digipads. "Rusti . . . just . . . just don't answer him. Just leave it. Strike Back has a few valid-"
She blustered out the room before Magnus could finish.
Strike Back stood, annoyed himself. "For Primus' sake, what's WITH you all? Magnus, more than anyone here, you know how unpredictable and unstable those two are. And yet you stood by and let them trash Fort Max. what kind of city commander ARE you?'
Jazz jumped to his feet. "That DOES it, Strike Back! One more sound outta you and I'll invite you outside!"
"What?" Strike Back dared. "You're gonna hit me? Won't change my mind. How about the three of you?" he glanced from Gryph to Convoy to Titanium. "Are all of you so in awe of Rodimus and Optimus Prime that you'd follow them to whatever part of the Pitt they're headed for?"
Convoy darted angry looks his way. "I trust them, Strike Back. They might have problems, but I know they still care about us; that they'll do anything in their power to protect and provide for us."
Magnus aimed for the door then turned back to face Strike Back. "Let me think here, Strike Back. You're from Paratron, right? And for millions and millions of years, Paratron enjoyed peace and serenity, right? No one fought, they were all content."
"They also looked alike, thought alike-your whole culture stagnated under absolute utopianism. Your people avoided growth and change because it caused pain. And next time you want to criticize either Prime, be sure to ask them what kind of pain they're in."
Magnus departed, followed silently by Jazz, Convoy and Cloudstreaker.
* * *
Rodimus could not stay in the conference room one minute longer. Every single person in there pissed him off. No. it really wasn't them. Not Jazz and not Magnus and none of the ladies. But the moment Strike Back opened his mouth, Roddi's temper treaded on thin, melting ice.
It really was no one's fault. After visiting Arcee, Rodimus felt Faceless Darkness slowly stir within him. That Dark Thirst stirred to life and Rodimus needed to confront It. He needed to put Void in Its place.
He did not question the sanity of his decision. He did not consider how impotent he was compared to a life form that, honestly, had no classification. Roddi was simply sick to death of dealing with It.
Prime headed for the quietest ship, the Thermosphere. It was the least damaged, serving as southern shield and scan. Rodimus boarded the vessel, taking note a few Autobots occupied the ship, using it as a place to relax before attending night duty. Sitting at the controls board on the bridge, Rodimus inverted the shields without warning.
He hoped the shields would keep Void from affecting other areas of the camp.
Again, he did not consider the logic of his decision.
He turned to Springer, Streetwise and Doublecross. "Leave the ship. Now."
Springer and Crossy stared. Streetwise spotted a shadow creep along the floor; a dark long legs spread the length and breadth of the bridge.
Springer, who was less observant, only frowned. "What's a matter, Rod? Decided to put up a 'vacancy' sign and charge rent?"
Delaying cost them. Streetwise, who headed for the door might have made it had he been allowed to take two more steps. Every Autobot on board the Thermosphere mysteriously froze. The Thermosphere lost all power Humans and aliens abandoned the ship.
Rodimus maneuvered through the dark corridors within the Thermosphere. He needed neither light nor scanners to know where he was going. Void followed him, stretching along the walls and floor like a distorted yawn.
Somehow the Virus felt comfortable to Roddi; a temporary companion.
Come along, my little friend, my cold shadow.
He led the Virus into the largest meeting room and closed, locked and barred the door.
Wait. Wait for it.
Wait. Wait for it.
There. It watched him behind the wall from the far end of the room. It phased in; a two-dimensional abyss of darkness against the wall of the lightless room.
"Come on," Roddi beckoned softly. "I know you're after a bit of blood. Come on."
Void needed no encouragement. Its head darted at Rodimus like an arrow, silver-white teeth chittering.
Rodimus kicked the conference table away. It slammed the far side counter. He used his arm-weapons, perforating holes into three walls, shattering decorative paneling.
Enraged, the Virus shot out the metal crevices and tried to impale Rodimus with its tail. It snapped its long teeth in his face.
Tail smashed the metal tiles along the walls.
Teeth snapped, missed, snapped. Missed, snapped.
Legs pierced everything they stood on, puncturing great rents into the flooring.
Rodimus rolled, ducked and dodged. He considered leaping on its back like a demonic horse. But the Virus was not a pony to be petted and ridden. It melted into the ship's flooring, and disappeared altogether.
Rodimus stood alone. Dead silence filled the room. He could hear his own laser core vibrate. He thought he heard the energon rush through his body.
Come back and play, he thought. Round two.
A dark-silver spear shot up the floor, the sound like metal scratching black top. It sliced the air precious inches shy of the Autobot leader. Rodimus barely escaped and landed on two conference chairs. Another spike jutted from the floor, toppling Prime from his perch.
Rodimus crunched the floor on his upper back then rolled backward to keep moving. The second his feet touched the floor on a rebound, Void's head pierced through the metal panels, sharp teeth cracking. It missed Roddi again and slowly withdrew, like a sinister cobra recoiling for another spring. Rodimus took advantage of its leisurely withdrawal and kicked it for all his life was worth.
Not so good an idea.
Void burst back and clamped hard on Roddi's left thigh. Bright hot lasers flashed the dark room.
Void tossed Rodimus and he slammed the wall next to the door, leaving a nice imprint in the metal and a pool of fluids on the floor.
One step. Void grinded its teeth, the sound vibrated in the room like a million fingernails along an old chalkboard. Another step closer to Rodimus.
So very real. He remembered the first time the Virus attacked Optimus physically. Void was real, but Max could not detect it. It was a life form with no composition on which to base their scanners. Consequently, no weapon affected it. No sort of mind power defeated it. And another thought that terrified Rodimus more than facing this thing head on:
The reality of the situation was the Virus was gaining strength.
Rodimus came to before Void's head pierced his chest cavity. Void's face sank into the wall. A sickening, squealing sound eked through the room and Void growled, frustrated. Rodimus tried to kick its left leg to unbalance the Virus but the wound on his left leg impeded his impact.
It cost him.
Faster than Prime thought possible, Void caught Roddi's left side like a bear trap and all those horrendous teeth sank through his exostructure, puncturing vital components; into fluid lines, into softer interior and through infrastructure. The pain sent Rodimus straight into shock.
Void dropped him like a dead rat and bellowed in victory. It lowered its head again, and just gently tapped its teeth along Roddi's face, just enough to leave tiny scratch marks. It nibbled over his chin, down his chest, smearing life blood. It nudged his unresponsive form.
Then it purred.
* * *
Rusti could not leave the conference room fast enough. It was her own fault; she insisted attending matters that did not concern her.
Sitting at the ledge of the plank, the girl reflected the staff's attitude. They all just sat there and let Strike Back yammer on as if he had all the answers to the universe's ailments. It irritated her that Strike Back snapped at Roddi. What made him think he could handle things better than Optimus or Roddi?
And what was wrong with Magnus? Why didn't he put a stop to the bickering?
Seething, the girl hunched over, her chin resting on her hand as she watched the camp close down. The afternoon waxed old. The ugly brown sky rotted into a sullen red-orange.
Where was Roddi?
She lifted her eyes, searching the tops of all the ships. Two mornings ago (well, two mornings for her) She caught him sitting atop the Armored Crest.
Rusti scowled and thought about returning to the Sunset when she caught sight of the Thermosphere. A smokey haze covered the double-decked ship in an eerie fog. In spite of common sense, Rusti aimed for it.
She stepped up the plank and wondered if anyone else in the camp knew the Thermosphere's power was offline. She peeked into the bridge on the right. Only outside light allowed her to see. She spotted Streetwise's silhouette, frozen like a paused image. There was Springer; a smart remark hung in his mouth. Crossy stared past the entryway.
Rusti left them and took the left lightless corridor. She knew exactly where to go.
The walls sagged on either side. The flooring under her weight gave in, cushioning her stride like a large pillow. Rusti closed her eyes and listened to the Thermosphere. All systems offline. Diagnostics doubled over in circular reasoning. It was fine. It was not. It was fine. It was not. The autopilot Logic centers smouldered, crisped by faulty realignment.
Conference Room B, Level 1 was nonexistent-or so the ship said.
Rusti needed no directions anyway. However, if Ultra Magnus knew where she headed-no, forget Magnus. Optimus was going to kill her.
The ship's conference doors stood resolute and imposing, although they dripped like melting wax. Rusti stared at them like a child before her parent's bedroom doors. Not all the ships were designed with Humans in mind.
Neither was a four-legged, faceless Virus. It slipped between the doors in a two-dimensional shape.
Rusti backed up, horrified by the sight. Run away, Little Girl," something said inside, "Run! Run!" but she ran before.
Not this time.
The Virus raised its head, stretching its neck ribbon-thin. Mouth open, teeth gleaming. It hissed.
Rusti did not look up. "What have you done to Rodimus?" Like staring into the hypnotic eyes of a serpent, Rusti knew better than to play Void's games.
Optimus hated mind games.
Void swung its surreal neck about the girl's shoulder and Rusti felt the Darkness breathe on her.
TWO. DOWN. ONE. LEFT.
"They're not dead." she answered. Now Rusti stared straight into its eyeless face. She searched for doubt, for a sense of reconsideration. No emotion. She took advantage of its hesitation, however. "You haven't won anything, haven't conquered anyone until they're both dead. At the molecular level."
The Virus retracted its head and backed off, its pin-point legs tapped on the metal flooring. The doors opened as Void backed into them. Rusti watched, intending to follow when Void snapped its teeth just millimeters from her face. Rusti squeaked and jumped.
It oozed into the flooring and she rushed into the room.
Ship systems returned to life but only at half-power. The jumbled conference room resembled a debris field. Something stripped the walls of all panels, revealing split lines and damaged circuitry. Holes and cracks pockmarked the ceiling and splintered furniture obstructed the floor. Rusti found Rodimus lying under a heap of busted chairs, broken wall panels and a hulking shattered conference table.
Sometimes she really hated being small.
Squeezing between two badly bent chairs and climbing over a sharp piece of metal, Rusti sat on its dangerous topside.
Balancing herself along the ledge, she slipped her gloves on before jumping down. The gloves scraped along jagged edges and Rusti was thankful she had the foresight to put her suit on earlier.
She hit bottom-and landed on her bottom. She stood and assessed the area, finding there'd be no escape for her if Roddi decided she was a bug needing to be squished.
But Roddi's condition, revealed by dim light, assured her the Autobot leader was not even capable of lifting his hand, let alone swat her. The girl climbed over an arm and tried to find his optics.
Damn. She leaned against his helm just under the spoiler. He was bleeding badly and hot to the touch.
[["You can't help or save me, Rusti. Not this time, Lady-friend. I feel it crawling inside me.]]
She rounded his form, finding tears on his face plates. [[Time is running out, Rusti. I think the time-ahead-thing has done something to the blocking chip.]]
Rusti laid her hands on his helm and gazed into his deep purple optics. "Optimus will get here! We'll be okay."
Roddi dimmed his optics. A tear plashed the floor at her feet. [[We have been abandoned.]]
"NO!" Rusti hit him. "If we had been abandoned, You'd already be DEAD!"
Magnus was going to kill her. But she had to call him.
"He's . . . you're where?"
"In the Thermosphere, Ultra Magnus. Conference Room B. Level one." she heard the city commander fire orders left and right, his voice firm and steady. She almost cut the comline when he came back to her.
"Rusti, just don't move. Don't touch him and don't do anything stupid."
Rusti blinked and lined her lips. Oops. On all three accounts. She wasn't sure if she should say something now, or wait until he arrived.
She did not have any time to debate her predicament. The doors-which closed when she was not looking, were forced open by Magnus.
"Stop arguing with me, Strike Back and look for the girl!" Magnus snarled.
"I'm here, Ultra Magnus!" she called.
Dead silence. Then:
"How the Pitt-? Never mind. I don't want to know. Crossy, help me here."
Rusti leaned against Roddi's shoulder while the other Autobots lifted heavy metal tiles, broken chairs and had to unweld parts of the table to make enough room for an anti-grav stretcher.
Rusti barely felt the vibration of Rodimus' laser core. Magnus and Doublecross lifted the table when someone came in to report an accident. Magnus asked Strike Back to handle it-which he did, but not without a short complaint.
Finally the table lifted and Rusti glanced into four pairs of worried optical sensors. She stepped back as Trinket scanned the Autobot leader.
The femme sighed, frustrated. "All I'm getting is high temp readings. There's no indication of damage.
"Just get him the hell out of here." Magnus snarled.
* * *
Rusti sat hunched, hugging her knees by the Spiral Star's medbay door. Not a word came from either Trinket or Perceptor for over twenty minutes. How long does it take to scan an Autobot, anyway? Rusti's anxiety did not help her impatience and she reminded herself over and over that it wasn't just an Autobot they were attending, but Roddi. The girl buried her head between her knees, her red hair showered over her shoulders.
Magnus stood nearby, leaning against a bulkhead. He mulled over the moment, torn between staying on Cratis for Optimus Prime's sake and leaving Cratis to find help for Rodimus-if in fact help could be found. The Major-General finally sat next to the girl (not really a girl anymore, he thought; she's twenty-one).
"Erm . . . you know, Rusti, you could have been badly injured by going alone. There's no telling what Rodimus could have done to you."
She studied him from under the ridge of her brows. Her stare made him just a little uncomfortable until she blinked slowly. "I can't afford to be afraid of him, Ultra Magnus. If I lose one, I'll lose both."
"I'm just concerned about you," he paused, finding it hard to ask the next question. "How are you, anyway? Has the Virus affected you?"
Rusti flushed and wondered herself. "Do you think it could?"
"I'm hoping it won't."
She considered a moment longer, reflecting on thoughts she ignored a long time ago. Like the Music. "I think, Ultra Magnus, that the Virus - Void . . . is as aware of me like I am of it. And it . . . it talks to me. But an outright attack? No."
"How so? Why do you think that's the case?"
The answer made her cold inside and Rusti swallowed hard. Her eyes burned with oncoming tears. "Because it's still feeding off Roddi and Optimus." tears tumbled over her nose and lips. She sniffed and wiped the side of her face with the back of her hand.
ECD specialist Tessa Gordman dashed into the corridor, breathless. "Ultra Magnus," she wheezed..
Kup beat her to the news over the comline: "WE GOT INCOMING!"
The piercing whines of weaponry sailed overhead and the ground shook, teetering the medical ship slightly to port.
Magnus snapped up like one stricken from a dream.
A mumble of thunder forced the city commander off his feet. "Rusti, I want you to head straight for the Frostbite."
The mutter of other thunders vibrated against the ship's floor plates. Rusti stood against the wall. "I can't leave Rodimus!"
Magnus put his foot down-literally. "Just ONCE do as YOU'RE TOLD!"
She stared at him and knew he was right. There was nothing she could do for Roddi. Rusti bolted outside and passed the Interrogator, heading for the Frostbite while Magnus leapt out, transformed and shot for the front line.
Rusti slipped on her helm while EDC Captain Kennedy shooed several children under the Interrogator's belly.
"Ling!" she called one boy, "you take Alisa's hand RIGHT NOW!"
But it was Alisa who was less than cooperative and the young boy stared at her, confused.
The ground blew not many yards from them and sprayed the Interrogator with a rain of dirt and grass. Two young girls screamed while Alisa stared defiantly at Ling who glanced helpless at Captain Kennedy.
An unknown vessel zoomed dangerously low, its engines rattled bones and nerves. Rusti grabbed Ling's hand but Alisa pulled away. Having no patience, Rusti swept the girl up and made a run for the Frostbite.
Another barrage of laser fire tore up the ground and peppered the starboard wing of the Interrogator just as Rusti and the captain made it inside.
Alisa pulled away and squeezed into the nearest, darkest corner she could find. Kennedy situated the children into safe holds in the floor and gave them blankets and pillows for comfort.
Duros tramped in leading another group of women and children and pointed to other safe holds. "Quickly now," he urged, "we need to get the shields up!"
Two women clutched toddlers to their bodies as they dropped into the holds. They waited while Pinpointer covered Kennedy and her group first.
"Are you alright?"
Rusti startled and faced Dr. Arcana. "No," she answered truthfully. "What's going on?"
"Air raid." He turned as Duros shut down the force field as a group of adults quickly boarded. Their faces registered fear, even though their movements did not. Rusti backed behind Dr. Arcana. At first he was going to ask her what was wrong, then spotted the problem:
One of the newcomers was Daniel.
Rusti could not look him in the eye. Why did he have to chose this ship? Then she was angry with herself. Why should she be afraid?
The ship rocked softly and fear froze everyone's sentences and movements. They listened intently to the soft thud of distant and approaching explosions and the roar of jet engines as they soared too close to the refugee camp.
It was Silverbolt who first took action. He swore on Primus' optic relays that he heard Decepticon engine rhythms. Slingshot thought him mad and jeered. But the sober-minded Aerialbot leader would not be swayed. He took a glance at Blades and shot to the skies. Air Raid had a better head between his shoulder struts than Slingshot. He copied Silver, flying casual, but maintained a sensor at every direction.
Sure enough, a clear, strong signal zoomed right for them from the southeastern horizon.
Air Raid zipped into view then shot past without regard to air-space.
"What on Cybertron was THAT?" Air Raid broadcasted to his commander.
Silverbolt did not have time to answer. A second flier boomed by and the first one fired on the camp. Air Raid dropped hard then bolted up, catching the second attacker on the underside. They boosted into the mesosphere and rolled before dropping again. Air Raid held his position at one point, transformed robot-form and fired at the attacker from above.
A Decepticon symbol shone darkly in the Cratian sun and Air Raid's core lost a vibration. After all these years, how?? Who were these Decepticons and why were they here?
Skydive joined Silverbolt on the fierce Decepticon invader. The first 'Con proved far more evasive than Air Raid's target. Silverbolt chased it to the sloping hills north of the camp while Sky Dive prodded it as far north-west as he could. But the flier, an angular jet with two-pronged nose, shot straight up, spun once then transformed and shot at Silverbolt.
The Aerialbot leader dropped to the right. Skydive sped forward as though abandoning Silver to the fight. The Decepticon dumped altitude, following Silverbolt toward the sloping hills. But Skydive snapped back on the scene, appearing almost from nowhere and surprised the 'Con with his speed rather than opening fire.
Taking advantage of Skydive's diversion, Silverbolt zapped the 'Con with a net of electric waves.
The Decepticon roared, folded back into jet mode and made a U-turn for the camp. Skydive punched in the speed and made a tough call: he transferred as much power and 'juices' into his weapons as he could with just enough reserves to land.
Skydive fired at the 'Con, flew through the deadly explosive heat, discovered he miscalculated and blacked out before crashing.
The death of Silverbolt's attacker signaled the onslaught. Fresh fighters raced in and zipped past the refugee camp before circling back. The Aerialbots took on the challenge. Other Autobots, like Dogfight, Blades, Cloudburst, and Velocity, put their faith in Silverbolt's leadership. And rather than merely chasing the oncoming air-borne Decepticons, they enticed the fliers from the camp and picked them off one or two at a time.
One Decepticon, however, veered hard to port and barrel-rolled straight up, then hammer-headed directly down.
"Can you believe this guy?" Skydive gasped. He kept his distance from the show-off watching for a weakness in the 'Con's flying abilities. But the talented Decepticon did not miss a cue-that is until he fired at the camp. Skydive took note how his opponent sputtered as it pulled up from a tight and sudden drop. Skydive did not see the Speedster was badly damaged. He circled the camp once, waiting for the Decepticon raider to return and finish his job.
Skydive was not disappointed. Not only did the Decepticon return, but brought a buddy. The two swept into a broad loop, preparing for a strafe along the southern ships. Air Raid pulled a tight snap-roll and shot hard and fast between the two Decepticons, distracting their objective. One shouted profanity at the Autobot, transformed and fired at Skydive.
It was a mistake, however. Paratron Velocity from Fort Sonix saw the little show of chicken-bot and fired a set of anti-polarizing cluster bombs in their direction. The first antagonist managed to evade the bombs, but his partner, now transformed and firing bad shots at Skydive, got it in the right hip plate. He tumbled end-over-end, crashed hard and left a dark trench in his path.
Fireflight joined Silverbolt, Air Raid and Slingshot into a short diamond formation directly above the Autobot camp. They stayed tight, allowing Dogfight to sneak under them from the southeast. Dog sprayed bullets into the nose cones of three oncoming adversaries. Slingshot kept his scanners on two 'Cons approaching North-east.
"Why don't we just form Superion and bash con brain?" he asked impatiently.
There's too many targets, Slingshot," Silverbolt answered. "And I will NOT risk any further endangerment to the camp. Slingshot, back-flip and take that bird out. Fireflight, I want a knife-edge strafe right between those two coming in at eleven forty-five."
"You got it!" Fireflight tipped his wings so he flew on his side. He just managed to slip between the two 'bad guys' and smoked them with fire fog. Utilizing a tight hairpin turn, Fireflight transformed and shot two short bursts at the 'cons. One burst went wild in the air current, missing one opponent. The second burst ignited the other Decepticon.
The one Fireflight missed, floored altitude and swept the ground so low his engines caught the grasses afire. He shot straight up, using an extra set of turbines. Silverbolt half-rolled to avoid collision. But Air Raid could not move that fast. He cut engines and dropped aft-cold, falling belly-up to prevent catastrophe. But his maneuver, as brilliant as it was, left him wide open and his interceptor took advantage of the moment, unfolding into robot form. He fired, spraying Air Raid with acid-ridden magnetic pellets.
Air Raid cried out and transformed but landed flat on his back.
He did not move.
As fearful as he was for Air Raid, Silverbolt did not have the luxury to check on his friend. He called Air Raid's name over and over until the Concord himself almost collided with another Decepticon.
The 'Con, an ugly, crab-like design, laughed as it madly raced one Cuban-eight maneuver after another over the refugee camp.
"One little birdy down D=Y=I=N=G!"
Silverbolt was painfully aware of several other battles going on simultaneously. He regretted they could not regroup and attack from another position.
Two down-and there went Velocity.
First things first, the Aerialbot commander decided: he waited, circling the southern half of the Autobot encampment while Wile E. Decepti-conee completed his latest Cuban-eight. Then just as the loud-mouth approached Silverbolt's airspace, the Aerialbot dropped to a hammer head, came a painful ten feet from the ground, transformed and kicked the Decepticon's underside just as the jerk passed overhead. The incredible maneuver caused several others to cease-fire and break combat formation to give enough room to the 'con as it rolled wing-over-wing out of control.
"YEAH!" Slingshot praised. "Kickin' aft and stacking body shells!"
The shock of the moment gave just what the Autobots needed and the two sides automatically realigned like pieces on a chessboard, ready for another killer game. But the numbers were greatly in Decepticon favor.
It rumbled from a short distance on land. Maybe as far away as the acid-water river.
RAH-BOOM. Closer. The Decepticon side cheered.
Back-up had arrived. And on the ground, Magnus arranged all Autobots to battle formation with the heavy-weight fighters at the forefront. He ordered Crosshairs to assist Britannia and Delta to retrieve the wounded fliers from outside the camp.
Not quite like thunder. More like a huge car wreck without squealing brakes. Convoy picked out the intermittent klink-klang of metal between each step. Either the oncoming warrior was huge like a pre-historic guardian robot, or it had incalculable mass.
Convoy's second guess was the right one. From the distance, the monster in question was not much taller than Grimlock, but he had greater mass and as such, his footfalls resounded across the landscape like bad news manifested in physical form.
Most of the Autobots stared dumbfounded at the oncoming behemoth and two of its companions.
Grimlock gripped his sword tightly. "Me, Grimlock, see big football player."
Doublecross next to him softly stamped the grass beneath her. "I get first dibs," she called.
Grimlock snorted. "NOT happening," he growled. "Me, Grimlock, king of oversized serious Godzilla gurus, here. Her, Rusti, even says so."
Doublecross' two heads gawked at Grimlock as if the Dinobot just spat out the entire equation for string-theory physics.
"Autobots!" Magnus' voice came over inter-personal com links. "Organized advance."
Grimlock snorted again. He was not about to allow some panty-waist, badge-waving Magnus to spoil his fun. He almost tuned Magnus out.
"Grimlock, take the lead. Sludge, right flank of Grimlock. Slag, left flank. Snarl, Doublecross, Repugnus, center-flank back-up. Titanium, Physix, Tektonix, checker-board behind Repugnus and Doublecross."
The aerial battle re-engaged; aircraft streaked back and forth. Missiles whooshed through the air and landed with a burst either on the ground or against a target.
Just as the Decepticon ground troops entered visual range, Grimlock rallied the charge.
* * *
As the battlefield thundered, First Aid, Perceptor and Trinket used all their tricks to revive and patch their leader's damaged form. Rodimus registered no life signs. For all they knew, he might as well not even be lying on their table. His optics that should have been dark blue, sunk into purple.
He was there; he was not. He was alive; he did not exist. First Aid shut his scanner off and shoved it aside, fuming.
Perceptor visibly cringed over his friend's frustration. Bombs softly thudded in the distance and the ship's lights flickered. Trinket turned away, disheartened.
Perceptor gripped the table edges, optics frozen on its metal surface. "We cannot simply abandon him."
First Aid, usually the most even-tempered Autobot, rested his head on the corner of the nearby cabinetry. "I'm open to suggestions. Even if it's an Earth witch doctor."
Trinket stared deep into Roddi's optics and briefly wondered about his real age. A few hours ago, Quasar confided to Trinket her feelings about Rodimus and how they should have scanned their leaders a long time ago.
But that wasn't the problem at all. It was the lack of technology available. The Virus, whatever it might be, was a thing beyond them.
Trinket stood straight and looked to her colleagues: "what about a psychic? We must have someone with that ability here."
Perceptor's voice remained leveled, sad. "No one has conveyed to me regarding the likelihood of anyone else possessing such an ability at any level. However, Rusti Witwicky does have some skill. But I am reluctant to include her in this situation. She may not have the objectivity necessary for an accurate deduction.
First Aid released his brooding and turned to the femme. "There is someone, but I'm not sure if she'd be willing to help: Jasmine Goodwin."
"Negative!" Perceptor objected. "She's hardly rational! Dr. Arcana can barely keep her sedated."
"No. The other one."
That Jasmine sat in solitude on board the Vertical Horizon. She adamantly refused to follow survivors to the Frostbite. After biting two would-be rescuers, they finally left the deranged, dying woman to her own fate. Jasmine sat in the stellar chart room upon the dais, twenty feet off the ground. For hours at a stretch, her eyes searched the holographic projection and on occasion, called the ship's computer to identify a star or a solar system.
A cup of hot tea, long since cold, sat untouched by her right. A plate of uneaten crackers squatted on the left. Before her lay a tablet of plain paper and a pencil. Sixteen pages of drawings filled the tablet with faces of things never seen on Earth. Jasmine insisted they existed and once spoke the language of one such creature.
As she stared at the stellar projection, her eyes cast far into depicted constellations as though she could see further than what was really there. Names of planets and stars glared back at her. They spoke volumes and Jasmine could not capture them all. She wrote down what was most important. She drew what she judged to be vital to future knowledge. Then she'd stare for hours more.
The stellar room doors opened and Goodwin blinked. When she spoke, it came as an eerie, cold whisper. "It will do you no good. I will not be moved."
Trinket stepped in as quietly as her metallic foretoes permitted. "Miss Goodwin? I'm sorry to bother you. We need your help."
"Please. It's for Roddi."
"He rides a demonic horse."
"We were wondering if you'd come and help us figure out what to do."
Jasmine softly sang to herself: "Two Autobot leaders walking on the line . . . "
"Miss Goodwin, we don't even know if Roddi is really alive or not."
"One fell off and lost his mind . . ."
"There's been no news of Optimus Prime. For all we know, he might be dead, too."
"God called the doctor but the devil chimed . . ."
"And we're afraid whatever happens to them might affect Rusti Witwicky."
" . . .Just move on and leave them behind. Mmmhmmm. Hmmmhmmm." Jasmine rolled her glassy brown eyes at Trinket. She did not look like she was coherent enough to hold a discussion. "Miss Trinket," she whispered. "Did you call yourself that?"
The Autobot femme gave Goodwin a horrified but disconcerted expression. "Miss Goodwin-Jasmine, we really-"
"Lying to me will do you no good. HA!" And her usual voice returned. "The galaxy is falling under alien control and you're worried about a single girl?"
Jasmine stood. Her clothes hung about her in tatters. Her arms displayed self-inflicted bite marks. Her long hair clung to her head in a matted mess. Trinket did not know the former EDC officer personally, but from what she understood, Jasmine Goodwin was an excellent officer, level-headed and a good pilot. Her husband did not survive the escape from Earth.
Jasmine tipped her head to the right, her thin lips turned in a pout. "What is not terrible is death and dying. Not terrible at all. What is terrible is the truth about the universe."
Trinket knew time slipped past them. Already sounds from the battlefield clamored, the whistles of bombs sounded more like death knells. The roar of the Dinobots sent surges through her body. She had the impulse to just swipe the woman up and run. But she did not know the consequences of such an action.
Jasmine turned back to the projection and with a remote control, zoomed into a far off galaxy dominated by hot gaseous nebula and a star cluster radiating with pulsars. She lifted her voice as though now in a classroom. "Rod Serling had no idea how close he was to the truth when he spoke about the Fifth Dimension: that of the imagination. All living, sentient creatures breathe life into things unimaginable without realizing all too often they are merely peeking into other dimensions and drawing them out for others to witness."
Jasmine's eyes drifted over her left shoulder to Trinket, her face expressionless.
Trinket was officially spooked. She stole one step back and dared a second when Jasmine's right eye sparked. Maybe it was nothing, maybe the Autobot femme just thought she saw it. But it was enough to make her change her mind about Goodwin.
"That reminds me, my dear," Jasmine returned. "Did you not say something about Rodimus Prime?"
Trinket returned to Perceptor and First Aid with Jasmine perched on her shoulder. She deposited the psychic on a counter top across the table Roddi occupied. Jasmine tried to straighten her matted, messy hair. Her eyes shot from the scientist to the Autobot doctor before settling on Prime.
With a deep breath, she sat on a box of tools. Emotion vacated her expression as she concentrated on Rodimus. Out the corner of her eye she acknowledged Trinket as the femme drew up a chair. First Aid remained dutifully standing as Perceptor also took a seat. The room fell quiet of speech and movement even as the battle roared outside the camp.
"Differentiation of personality," Jasmine whispered to herself. "Optimus? No. Inconceivable."
No one dared interrupt her, even when her eyes rolled to the back of her head, even when her form went rigid. She hissed inward. "I don't know what that thing is! I don't know where it's from! Manufactured? Or old as time? Old, or made? Old, or made?" she whispered incoherently before raising her voice so the Autobots could hear: "No, both: mutated. And it keeps . . . it keeps growing, growing. Filthy thing. What frequency are you on? Is that Alpha-protonic, or . . . gamma-protonic? We'll keep looking. Keep . . . looking." her voice fell into a soft hum.
Jasmine slipped from the reality of her surroundings and her mind fell through the cosmos of memory. She traveled from world to world, recalling all those planets she studied from star charts. She jumped from name to name: Orvos, Drem, Tortim, Simindar, Relquim . . . and it jumped dimensions.
It keeps jumping. . .
* * *
Rodimus fancied himself as a boy with tussled red hair and freckles bridging his nose like little dots of playfulness.
Mischief should have been his middle name and his older sister sometimes said so. He recalled once in the eighth grade how he tossed toad droppings through the girl's bathroom window at school during lunch break. That bit of nastiness was immediately followed by the toads themselves and a few polliwogs to boot. Girls poured out the restroom like ants with their nest set afire. The other boys treated him akin to some superhero.
The principal, however, was less than amused and drove Roddi straight to the office where the boy's father worked.
Not such a good thing. Mr. Prime grounded his son for three weeks thereafter. No video games or skateboards. But Mr. Prime was sort of a softy and while he grounded his son for one thing, he did take Roddi out to ice cream for a bit of father-son time.
That was pretty damn cool. (Not that Roddi would EVER cuss in front of his dad.)
They ordered two large, double-scoop ice cream cones at the park. They sat in front of the river, watching three toddlers with their mothers feed a group of starving ducks. The warm September air gave the day a somewhat summer laziness and after a while, Mr. Prime's gaze drifted into and past the towering city buildings.
Roddi had an issue he needed to discuss with his father. Two weeks ago he was digging through old stuff in the attic and discovered a secret. Of course, Roddi knew better than to sneak into things he had no business being in, but the attic begged for exploration. His mother certainly would not be happy about it, which was why Roddi thought about talking to his father, first. Dad was a guy; he'd understand the itch of curiosity. But the subject matter was touchy and Roddi tried to think of the best way to approach his father.
Mr. Prime was a kind and thoughtful man, and he expected his son to be clearheaded, civil and gentlemanly. After all, Roddi was currently the only boy in the family. Rodimus put his trust into his father's understanding.
"Dad?" Roddi's voice chimed strong and sweet to his father's ears. "I have to tell you something. It's really important."
Mr. Prime gave his son all the attention and support a caring, understanding father should.
Rodimus took that to heart and gathered his courage. "I just found out that I'm part Decepticon. You're not mad at me, are you?"
Mr. Prime thought the moment through with care and dabbed ice cream from the corner of his son's mouth. "Should I punish you for being different? Does that mean you are not my son?"
"No." Roddi squeezed his face together, struggling to think. "I um, I was up in the attic and I found an old dusty book full of pictures 'nd stuff. And one of the pictures had some Decepticons in it. Does that make us Decepticon? Am I part Decepticon and am I going to get into trouble for being up there?"
Mr. Prime smiled mostly to himself. The call of curiosity. He and his own father traveled the mysteries of his mother's attic. They found ancient wedding clothes, baby toys, old tools and even an ugly broken lamp. "No, Rodimus. You're not in trouble. And yes, it's true. As for getting into trouble, you've already done that today. Other than that, your heritage is inconsequential compared to your future duty to take care of the Autobots. You're part of MY family and that means you have a responsibility."
"But I didn't ASK for that responsibility."
"I know, Rodimus. Nobody does. But if you were not able to handle it, you would not have been chosen. Does that make sense?"
"I guess so."
"Then eat your ice cream, son and let's get back."
* * *
Void scoffed, FOOLISHNESS. WORTHLESS. ALL THINGS FUTILE. YOUR LIFE EXPENDABLE. YOUR LIFE. INCONSEQUENTIAL. YOUR DEEDS . . . USELESS.
Rodimus saw the truth of it. A day would come when all he worked for, all he cared about would fade to nothing; his name reduced to a word in some ancient history book never read. His suffering and sacrifice, long since forgotten. After all, he was nothing more than a simple single-celled animal in light of the greatness of the cosmos.
Completely and totally inconsequential.
Ultimately, it meant that Rodimus and every other sapient creature was worth nothing.
sprawled along the depth of his despair, Roddi managed to recall something Ambassador Koontah said; something about Foreknowledge; his own role among the Autobots and Forgiveness.
And if he accepted that Forgiveness, did that not mean there was more to life than material, visible existence?
Rodimus smiled. Of course there was. The Virus was deceiving him. Liar, Roddi snarled inwardly.
NEGATIVE. LIFE . . . ACCIDENTAL. LIFE EXPIRES. YOU. DESPAIR. LAMENT. EXPIRE.
"LIAR!" Roddi exploded to life. He jumped to his feet, teetering the exam table. He kicked away overhead lights, terrified Jasmine and shocked First Aid, Perceptor and Trinket.
Perceptor fell backwards and scuttled away as a gruesome shadow bled along the wall behind Jasmine. She screamed when Void's head stretched outward. It's long angular head lengthened disproportionate to its flat neck. It hissed at Rodimus.
"LIAR!" Rodimus was completely heedless of his surroundings and did not see Jasmine stand on the counter near his feet. She held her palms flat toward him and struggled against a barrier of psychic energy. But she could not penetrate it. Rodimus' mental wall was far greater, far stronger than anything she encountered.
Worse yet, something else, something terrible and filthy rammed against it. It turned to her for a moment but regarded her not more than a mere bug.
Jasmine mentally recoiled. This was a war in which she could not afford to intervene.
Void refused rejection. It shot out like a bullet and slammed into Roddi's chest. He crashed on the exam table with such force it yanked the table off its foundation.
On board the Frostbite, Rusti collapsed with a skull-cracking migraine.
In Concentric City, Optimus staggered and blacked out as Galvatron caught him.
At the battlefield, Magnus stopped dead in his tracks, clutching his chest. He noticed for the briefest of moments, the entire Autobot army hesitated, looking confused with sudden pain.
Rodimus lay unconscious on the floor, the broken table toppled nearby.
Trinket stood, shuddering. Perceptor dared not move. First Aid crawled toward their fallen leader, hoping to help, but not knowing how.
Rodimus' optics dimmed on. He searched deep within himself, within the Matrix; the central life system of his people. He was not going to be defeated so easily. If the damned Virus intended to swallow him, Roddi wanted to make sure he shredded its vile gullet. Roddi descended down, down into the nether regions of the Matrix and resurfaced with a final shred of inner strength.
It did not harm or destroy the Virus. It did not prevent Void from taking control over Rodimus' body. But it did keep Rodimus from losing every aspect of who and what he was. In that regard, Void lost.
But the world changed for Rodimus. Grey shadows dampened all color. The light was not so bright. And treasured moments of peace and happiness were clouded by memories and thoughts of grief and suffering.
Roddi stood. It was time to join the others. He stepped over First Aid's outstretched arm, unable to hear the medic's call.
It was time to hunt.
* * *
The shriek of bombs and bullets whistled through the air like a bombardment of fireworks. On board the Frostbite, Children held their breath as they huddled close to their guardians and parents. Fortunately, most explosions and attacks thudded far from the ship.
More people attended the view screen, now. Three other Autobot ships broadcasted the events outside. Several EDC officers, a few Autobots and most civilians watched the battle in dire, silent trepidation. Their hopes hung on each slim victory. Minutes turned to tormenting hours. The sound of explosions ticked the time away; the fighting and dying outside seemed surreal.
Rusti hugged herself into a corner, watching the battle outside between other adult bodies as they stood or sat in an agitated state. Her body shook slightly as Delta took a shot to the back, the conquering robot howled in victory and kicked the femme aside.
Sideswipe jumped to her rescue and rammed into the Duocon's back. They rolled along the ground and wrestled out of visual range.
Titanium took on two alien-animal Decepticons simultaneously. They charged and the great Autobot kicked one in the face while he grabbed the other with huge hands. As the second horned beast tried to puncture him with saber teeth, the first beast rebounded and charged with all its might. Titanium twisted his body just so, keeping hold of the one and kicked up the second, sending it flying just high enough to grab it by his free hand.
The alien animals snarled and squirmed in his grip. One tried to spit acid, missing their enemy by quite a ways. Titanium held them apart as though lifting weights then cracked their craniums together. The shaggy things tumbled to the ground. Titanium took the moment to check the charge on his twin magna-pulse rifle. He did not see the animal bodies split down the middle and crack open like a pair of fuzzy clams.
Two smaller robots crawled out the animal shells and conjoined just as Titanium looked up. The two Pretenders became a Duocon and the Decepticon gave Titanium a right cross to remember him by.
The tall Autobot rolled, recovered his stance and drew his ion sword. It crackled red and he held it back as the Duocon charged anew. With a good swipe, he sliced the Duocon in half and without losing momentum, kicked away an oncoming Pretender.
The second Pretender fell over dead. Rewind appeared from Titanium's right side and kicked the oversized fluffy alligator before giving Titanium a thumbs-up.
After watching for another ten minutes, Rusti could not watch anymore. She could not tune out the sounds around them, the explosions, the distant rumble of heavy metal feet or the falling bodies, but she did not have to watch. People crowded tightly in the bridge and if she wanted privacy, peace and quiet, Rusti was forced to find it elsewhere.
She abandoned the corner and wound her way between anxious, tense refugees. To her annoyance, Rusti found the adjoining corridor just as crowded with those who could not get on the bridge or wanted to stay close to the exit in case of emergency evacuation.
Fearful eyes followed her and Rusti pretended she saw no one, noticed nothing. She turned a right-hand corner and across the way spotted Daniel. Rusti wished she had not.
He sat slumped in the shadows, a dark blanket eclipsed much of his form from the light. Daniel sat hunched staring into nothing. A strange look carved into his visage; a gruesomeness that picked out the wrinkles and hard lines around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. His brows lay heavy with thoughts of bedded wrath. His shoulders came too close to his chin like a cat ready to lunge. The muscles under his eyes twitched and Rusti hoped no one bothered him because Daniel looked ready to kill.
The ship rocked, but did not tip. A few people cried with fear and clutched one another for assurance.
Rusti's heart raced as one explosion followed another three times over. A jet roared too closely above them. She hit the wall with her back and scrunched down, arms over her head, head between her knees as the ship's systems blinked off then returned. The vessel stabilized as missiles and bombs fade to the background. Rusti rounded more bodies to put better distance between herself and Daniel.
From the opposite end of the corridor, Lt. Affernaugh stepped about the crowd, checked the length and breadth of the passage, glanced from one small group to another. "Steady there, people," he called, "Just stay calm." He met Rusti's eyes and sent her an assuring wink.
She forced herself to smile.
Bit by bit people settled down again as Affernaugh picked his way around, asking this person and that how they were doing. Wisely enough, he made no promises about the battle's outcome.
No sooner had he taken fifteen steps from Rusti than shots and hits yelped and whistled above them. The ground thudded time and over again. Another pounded too close, rocking the Frostbite.
That was when it hit Rusti. White-hot light exploded behind her eyes and stabbed her to the core. Rusti lost the ability to breathe. She felt her bones crack, her blood coagulated and her innards constricted. She crumbled, grateful for the floor's cooler temperature.
Voices panicked about her. Someone shouted her name. Fingers pinched her nose and as annoying as it was, she could not resist.
Air forced its way into her lungs.
A powerful fist struck the center of her chest, crushing her heart.
The Virus hissed. Its long shadow retreated from the back of her mind. Rusti had no idea it was even there.
Did someone say she was bleeding?
Quiet, now. Shhhh. Quiet.
She heard it, felt it speak. The Frostbite knew her name. But that was ridiculous. Ships don't know. They're just bodies with a computer and a propulsion system. The girl inwardly winced at herself. Isn't that what people are, too? A brain at the top, toes below and everything else in between.
Be quiet. What was the Frostbite saying? Shields holding at ninety-two percent. Decepticons approaching from the south.
Decepticons approaching from the south? The Frostbite tried to alert them but something was wrong. The ship could not warn them.
Decepticons were approaching.
Rusti blacked out.
* * *
By genuine will power, Slingshot managed to maintain enough altitude and balance to stay alive. The last dogfight crippled the Aerialbot leaving nice large holes in his left wing and tail. Snapping short circuits whipped pain throughout Slingshot's components and his automatic systems insisted he land and shut down. Instead, Slingshot struggled to revert to robotic mode. He should not. He'd hear about it from First Aid or some other fortress medic later.
If he died, at least he'd go down fighting. He managed easy enough a landing, even if it was straight on his belly and even if it was among a patch of gruesome thorn bushes.
The Aerialbot managed to complete transformation and forced himself up on hands and knees. He'd get lectured about moving with an injury. Hot liquid milked down the insides of his chest, smooth and brief. That could not be good. Right leg forward.
Slingshot's shout was promptly followed by a string of negatives. He grasped a breath. Silverbolt would have been embarrassed over those words.
Then Slingshot laughed. At least it wasn't as bad as Magnus! NO one could be THAT bad!
"Awe, lookit! Little glop of grease groaning over his widdle booboo."
Slingshot forced his optics upward and faced the Decepticon standing before him, gloating, grinning, red optics glowing.
It's bad policy to show weakness to any Decepticon at any time. Slingshot grinded gears and forced himself to stand. He stood as straight as he could.
"Awe, lookit," the Aerialbot mocked. "It's a Decepticon! Tall, dark and pin-headed."
That did not go over well. 'Dark and Pinheaded' lunged for the mouthy Aerialbot and Slingshot managed just out of the way. Pain could not be stifled forever and extracted a price. This melee could not last too many rounds.
Slingshot studied Dark and Pin-Headed for open areas, bad habits, anything to give him a half a chance. The Con shot at him. Slingshot dodged, hit the ground and grabbed several good-sized stones. Pin-Headed fired like an amateur at a carnival, allowing Slingshot openings through which he tossed his primitive ammunition. The Decepticon hit a good nick on the left shoulder. It almost cost Slingshot his concentration. But rather than act predictably, Slingshot dropped flat and allowed pain receptors to cripple him long enough to reroute power flow.
Pin-Headed ballyhooed: "HA! AUTOBOT PINX! Shoulda stayed home and lubricated your rusted carcass!
Slingshot cursed inward but remained silent, struggling to keep from gasping. He called his weapon from subspace as Dark and Pin-Headed took one threatening step, then another.
You know, Autobot, on this planet, the natives eat parts of the dead to take in their power. How tasty will you be?"
Slingshot set his weapon for a single power-draining shot because he knew he had only one chance.
"Not very," he answered and shot into the 'con's left optic."
"L-L-A-A-G-G-G-H-H-H!!!" The Decepticon flipped backward in the tall grassy thorns, squirming like a wounded worm. He arched his back and kept screaming.
Shuddering with after-shock, Slingshot managed to stand and shot the 'Con twice more for good measure.
The Aerialbot stumbled forward, landing hard on his knees. There was no telling how far the camp was from his location. He was pretty much on his own and he knew that-or so he believed-until Silverbolt called him on the intercom.
"Yeah, I'll live," he griped, still trying to keep pain out of his voice. "But . . . I expect a cup of hot-something when I get back-HOLY PRIMUS!"
To his right, Slingshot spotted the refugee camp, the line of Autobot warriors before it and Decepticons closing in or engaged. To his shock, a great shadow rose from the ground-four legs, jaws gleaming with fluids and it turned toward the advancing Decepticon army. One slender leg stepped from the refugee ships and where it landed stood Rodimus Prime, clothed in a darkness Slingshot could only describe as a fine mesh screen that blotted Roddi's colors.
They were all in dire trouble.
Slingshot tried to warn Silverbolt; the Aerialbot almost could not put his words together. The Aerialbot commander answered with "I'll get back to you in a minute."
From Slingshot's vista, he watched a great black Decepticon flier make a spin loop, ascending straight up the mesosphere. The jet hammered back toward the planet in a suicidal dive. Springer flew into view and edged hard to starboard to avoid the dark craft's wake.
The Decepticon shot a second set of turbines, pulling up just a bare three feet from collision. He paved a trail between the two armies. His wind kissed the ground and left a burnt trail in his path. He transformed and shot white-hot stakes at the Autobot triple-changer.
Springer partially crashed as Ultra Magnus gave the call for the Dinobots to charge the land-based Decepticon Shock troops.
The Dark Flier reloaded his crossbow and aimed as Springer slipped into auto mode. Rather than evade the attack, Springer advanced like a maniac. He fired at the 'Con intentionally missing his target.
The Decepticon, who had not loaded his crossbow just yet, paused to laugh. "You fight like a maintenance droid! Tell me, Autobot, do they keep you around for conversation, or CHEAP ENTERTAINMENT?"
Springer was counting on his antic to catch the 'Con off guard and he transformed just before tackling the Dark Flier who aimed to side-step. Instead, Springer transformed and his feet contacted the Decepticon's thorax. The two fell ground-wise and rolled before the Con threw him off and produced a double-bladed serrated sword.
"Geeze!" Springer hissed. "Where did you get THAT thing? The Universal Swiss army knife shop?"
The 'Con took a swipe and although Springer tried to leapt back, two gashes appeared on his chest. He did not feel the sword!
The Dark Flier shrugged and with two swift moves, sliced Springer's body diagonally. Springer shuddered in shock and fell to stasis lock.
* * *
Rusti awoke with no sense of time. Remnants of her flash-migraine bounced behind her eyes. Her face hurt. Her muscles ached.
The Frostbite sat in dim emergency lighting. Sounds of war screamed and bellowed from afar. Sometimes the noises closed in, threatening the Frostbite and her dependents with the certainty of death. Rusti wished she could guess what happened on the battlefield. The isolation comforted no one on the ship, even though some of the battle was televised. Their words came muffled in quiet nervous voices.
Rusti managed to sit up. Her head reclined against the wall, as pain thumped the insides of her skull. Her dry mouth tasted bloody; she bit her inner cheek when she dropped. Everyone around her sat repressed with apprehension; their faces haunted, their eyes hollow with dread.
People huddled closer together with blankets and pillows. Rusti decided all she wanted was a warm bath and her own bed. All the blankets and pillows in the galaxy could not comfort her.
The Frostbite tottered just a bit. No one paid it much mind by this point. No explosions hit, no rockets raged overhead. It was probably one of the Dinobots thundering across the land, shaking the ground under their powerful bodies. But the waiting smothered most conversation and Rusti wondered how long she was out.
Unaccounted minutes fell away before a figure picked a path around the bodies toward her. Rusti lifted sore, weary eyes as Dr. Arcana knelt beside her with a small scanner in hand. "I'm glad you've come out of it. How do you feel?"
"Like shit," she answered with a tone Roddi might have used.
She did not see the Headmaster doctor raise his brows. "You passed out."
"Yeah. It was like someone hit me on the inside of my skull. In fact, if you crack it open, you might find the guy in there with a jackhammer."
Arcana produced a bottle of water and two pills. Rusti stared at the pills with disdain. If only two aspirin was all it took to fix the world's problems. "Here, Rusti. It's not much. And keep the water. You're probably dehydrated."
She accepted both items and stared at the pills, now aware something else was amiss. "Something's wrong, Dr. Arcana. Something's wrong with Roddi."
He leaned toward her, "You can't help him, Rusti. No matter how much you care, you and I can do nothing."
She choked, fearful. While tears gathered behind her eyes, she hurt too much to let them go. The girl seized control of her distressed heart and swallowed the pills. Satisfied she did not resist his offer, Arcana laid a hand on her shoulder then quietly departed. Out the corner of her eye, Rusti watched him disappear into the bridge. Temptation to join those watching the battle called her but Rusti did not have enough curiosity. She had no desire to watch the Autobots sacrifice their lives; not when she knew how Roddi felt about the situation.
She wished she could be out there with them.
A tiny light sparkled off the right.
Rusti ignored it at first. Her foggy, aching head kept her on the floor, against the wall and out of trouble. But only for those few moments when she was smart enough to keep her eyes closed.
It blinked again with greater strength; coaxing her curiosity from the safety of her peers.
Rusti scrunched her brows and tried to turn away. But the hard floor offered no comfort. She squeezed the water bottle tightly. There's always the excuse to find the 'little girl's room'. Irritated by her own insatiable curiosity, Rusti polished off the water and slowly stood even as a screaming rocket sailed over the Frostbite and boomed nearby.
Rusti toed her way over sleeping forms, convincing herself that she was not looking for the light; it was just incidental that it blinked in the same direction.
Nevertheless, it drew her further from safety. Clearly a foolish thing to do. Rusti paused at the end of the second corridor and chose to turn back.
Another muted light flickered from the left. Maybe some little kid found a flashlight. No. All little kids were tucked safely in the ship's storage compartments. The light-flicker reappeared around the next bulkhead. She glanced right. Left. Right. Left.
There! She crept toward the source like a cat, low, noiseless, cautious. It was gone again. But Rusti was not fooled. She saw something. Wait. Wait for it.
There! Light. Images. Just like she saw in Goodwin's tent. Faces of Transformers and aliens flashed in her face. She could not count the number of people nor did she have time to concentrate on any one of them.
And then it was gone. Rusti sat there, stunned. what was that all about? She wracked her brains, trying to recall why the incident seemed so familiar.
A strange, indescribable sound called her. Rusti strained her senses. It sounded like a voice, but it really wasn't a voice ... and yet it was.
She debated. And she debated more.
Rusti decided to track the sound.
Attending another patient, Dr. Arcana asked Lakendra Littlefield to check on Rusti and a few others. She traversed from one place to another, keeping notes and distributing water where it was needed. By the time she reached the place where Arcana said the Witwicky girl rested, all Littlefield found was an empty spot and an empty water bottle. She turned about, hoping she was just in the wrong place. But two witnesses said the girl slipped away some time ago.
Littlefield checked the restrooms. No result. She resorted to softly calling, hoping to get an answer. "Rusti?"
She was not in one room or another. Certainly not on the bridge or in any nearby conference rooms. "Have you-excuse me, have you seen Rusti-oh, I-I'm sorry, Mr. Witwicky. I was trying to locate your daughter."
Daniel stared at Littlefield with cold glassy eyes. He held her for a long moment projecting nothing but contempt.
She backed away, actually fearful until a hand landed on her shoulder. Littlefield jumped then turned to face Arcana. "The girl-" she stammered, "Rusti. I can't find her."
"No one has left the ship. I'm sure she's someplace." Arcana's eyes drifted to Daniel Witwicky's face. His visage was a brick wall. Brown eyes saw through them and around them; a set of mirrors reflecting neither light nor a soul. The creases round his mouth were deep scars of scorn. Daniel somberly turned from them and disappeared into the crowd.
Arcana excused himself from Littlefield and flipped out his scanner.
Sensing his urgency, Littlefield did the same and hoped they found Rusti before her mad father got a hold of the girl.
Psychic fingerprints whispered from all parts of the vessel. They trailed after, reporting events and rumors of the ship's original designers.
Rusti dragged her fingers along the Frostbite's metal walls, listening to its shields complain. "Shhhh. That's enough." She could not listen to the ship and the alien voice at the same time. By now her curiosity enticed her toward the stern, most likely closer to the engine room. She frowned in resignation. It had been quite a while since she heard the voice and certainly someone was looking for her. She about returned to the ship's main section when she ran into a silent, masculine figure. "Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't know anybody was behind me!"
At first Rusti did not see his face clearly. She tilted her head slightly, struggling to make out his facial characteristics. "Excuse me, do I know you?"
His lips spoke but his words did not match the movement. Rusti nervously backed off a step.
"Refrain. From. Bare-Anches."
"Refrain. From. Bare-Anches. Time-could not . . . anyone else. Refrain-Bare-Anches."
She instinctively reached for the stranger. Bitter-cold frosted her out-stretched hand and the figure vanished the next second. Rusti caught her breath, shocked.
A terrible boom tipped Frostbite hard to the side. Rusti slammed left as echos of screams tumbled down the hall.
The Frostbite did not flip, but internal power snapped off. Rusti hugged the bulkhead and covered her ears while jets zoomed directly over the ship. The roar of engines vibrated the shields while weapons pounded the ground, a shower of dirt and rocks followed.
Rusti covered her face and bowered over. She desperately wanted to go home. The storm of bombs drifted off, hopefully outside of camp, away from the ships. Ten seconds later, distance muffled the sounds of war.
That was it. Rusti made her mind to get back to the rest of the group and quit chasing phantoms. But just as she turned, a small sphere of light sparked like crystal-luminescence. Points and spikes mesmerized her as it floated to the floor. The sharp light softened to a dull glow and melted to transparency before it solidified into a reddish-brown figure.
Confused that she could see the figure, Rusti scrutinized the form through the dull emergency lighting.
No taller than six inches, a alien returned her gaze with a long head, a pointed chin and a set of horns. It had a visual sensory organ resembling a V-shaped visor. It also had no arms or hands; in fact, it had no torso.
The alien opened its mouth and squeaked at her.
She thought it cute.
"Come here," she beckoned, "I won't hurt you. Come here." She tentatively held forth her hand, hoping the alien would not bite. She remembered the dog she once tried to coax when she was little. It gave her eight stitches.
The alien backed up a space or two, squeaking as though attempting to communicate. It was ugly and yet cute, like a doll from another world. Rusti crept forward just another foot or more, keeping her movements slow, whispering in friendly tones.
She reached the alien, just touching it with the tips of her fingers. Smooth as glass, its warm shape rubbed against her hand like a kitten suddenly discovering love for the first time. Rusti dragged the rest of her form closer, daring not to enclose her hand round the alien in case it was too close, too fast.
"Hello!" She said softly, "How are you? Are you from around here? Are you lost? Maybe you're a baby, huh? Where's your mother?"
The Frostbite's interior lighting flickered, trying to realign power flow. Rusti startled, finding herself in the sub-control room near crew relief quarters.
The little guy cuddled in her hand. Charmed, Rusti brought it closer to her face and examined it for wounds or markings.
Voices from the other end of the Frostbite sounded through the corridors. Not far from her position, Rusti heard Duros' voice call out power levels. Littlefield's voice marked numbers rations of food and water verses number of people in the ship. Rusti wondered if she should hide her new-found friend. Chances were the 'adults' would either kill it and ask questions later, cage it for a later time, or force her to put it outside.
It. It. It.
*It* needed a name. But there was no time for something of that nature. Rusti glanced up and down, seeking possible storage compartments-someplace preferably warm, cozy and quiet in which to hide.
The ship rocked, responding to a great nearby blast. The lights blinked once more, and Rusti hugged the alien close. She shushed it when it squeaked and snorted.
"THERE YOU ARE!" Littlefield's voice called loudly. Rusti squeaked herself. "What have you got there?"
"Nothing!" She stammered automatically. "It's nothing. Just a-a stuffed toy-"
Too late Littlefield screamed and Rusti tried to shelter the alien from the officer's vision. "Stop!" Rusti begged, "you're scaring him!
Arcana and Captain Jemal Helser came to Littlefield's aid. Lakendra turned her face away, burying frightened eyes into Helser's shoulder.
Arcana knelt, his face a contortion of horror and puzzlement. "What on the face of Mars IS THAT, Rusti?"
Rusti could not believe their reaction-especially Littlefield. She remained respectful enough to leave the 'duh' out of her answer. "It's an alien. I found it while the lights were out."
That's one hell of an alien." Helser chirped while Littlefield sobbed on.
Arcana shot an irritated glance, not at Helser, but at Littlefield. "Get her out of here."
Rusti frowned and shook her head. Some women just can't take it.
"Rusti, we'll have to either put it outside or in a cage."
"No!" she argued, "It's not going to hurt anyone! It's just a little thing, probably lost. When the fighting is over, I'll let it go . . ." Maybe, she added to herself.
Arcana sighed impatiently, "Look, Rusti, I do not want to argue with you about this. Anything that looks like a living skeleton is going to upset people-"
The girl's eyes shot wide open, "What did you say?"
"Rusti!" Arcana's voice turned firmer, "An alien that looks like a skeleton is not something to bring home-"
"SKELETON?!" Rusti reexamined her little keepsake and tried to figure out why Arcana would say such a thing. Then her mouth dropped: "Ohmigod. You're seeing something totally different!"
A sharp blast sent a blazing wind down the corridor. Rusti fell to her side, clutching the alien close. Arcana sheltered her with his body as a blaze whirled about them.
Faster than the girl's next breath, Arcana whipped out his laser weapon and fired three times. There came a shout from a set of vocalizers, clearly of mechanical origin.
"Get up!" Arcana jumped to his feet and yanked Rusti to hers. He gently but firmly pushed her further down the hall. "Duros!" he screamed into the comlink, "Shields have been compromised! Repeat! Shields have been compromised!" His weight fell forward when Rusti pulled him back. He glanced just long enough to choke in shock when two Decepticons boarded the vessel.
One of them was Rumble.
* * *
The ground trembled with echoes of great footfalls. Rocks tremored across the plain, influenced by a false quake.
The difference between Sludge and the great Decepticon behemoth was Sludge's ability to walk softly in spite of his tremendous size. Training by Autobots and time spend on Dinobot Island had taught the Dinobots how to handle their size and strength among the smaller members of their race.
Which was exactly why Grimlock was disturbed by the heavy-footed Decepticon coming their way. And while the Dinobot leader felt inclined to boast of Dinobot finesse, he dared say nothing, knowing now that a braggart usually eats his own words.
The largest Decepticon paused in his tracks so that three others could catch up to his great strides. Amazingly enough, the heavy-footed Decepticon was not that much taller than Grimlock in robot form. But his mass was quite the match. Short shoulder-mounted rocket launchers padded his huge shoulders. His chest was a fortress of solid metal, folded with no seams. His legs, built like bolted rocks, left no room for doubt as to their strength and power.
Kup checked his weapon for the third time. "I don't like the look of this."
Jazz beside him did not answer. The security chief gave his friend a sidelong glance. Jazz was clearly nervous, his optics fixed on the shock troops.
"Jazz?" The older Autobot followed Jazz's stare and his face dropped in shock. The second Decepticon over the horizon reflected Grimlock's mass in Dinobot form. But the similarity ended there.
A set of powerful back legs swept up from its body and punctured the ground with long claws. A tail shot up over its head with a fine-point stinger and two weapons protruded from the thickest part of the tail. A set of smaller claws came out the chest piece. But the head was what so obviously distressed Jazz. The head was a basic cone-shape with a set of down-sided triangular optics and a long jaw that extended so that it could very well have reached around one of Omega Supreme's own legs. The jaw dropped into a permanent scream.
The creature, the Decepticon, looked eerily similar to one of Rodimus' own demonic sculptures.
The Decepticon behemoth stopped as if held back by an invisible line. He swept a pointed finger from one end of the Autobot army to the other.
"I will fight only the strongest and bravest of Autobots. Do not insult me by sending the Autobot leader. We know him, his name. I want BETTER. "I, Lux, shock trooper of the Decepticon army, DEMAND IT!"
Grimlock shifted to robot form and pointed to Lux. "You pick fight. Me, Grimlock, finish it."
Lux did not answer right away. One of his other buddies, a four-armed freak, stamped the ground in anticipation. Lux, however, laughed. "I ask for a big, bad Autobot and you send me a glitch-ridden DOG?"
Grimlock instantly reverted to Dino mode and released such a roar that all Decepticon fliers lost track of their positions. The back-line stepped back, surprised. The four shock troopers-except Lux-flinched. Many Autobots cringed and some held hands over their audio receptors.
And then Grimlock lead the assault.
Lux met him half way, arm raised and a energy-mace replaced his right hand. Grimlock crashed into the Decepticon, landing on his backside. The Decepticon sprang up, swinging left, right, left until Grimlock caught his arm between his teeth and yanked the Decepticon around, tossing him like a doll.
Lux flew, but landed gracefully with a roll. The ground quaked under the thunderous weight of the two warriors.
Grimlock and Lux's battle drew Autobot-Decepticon lines and the code of battle, a silent law, played out. Grimlock and Lux wrestled with life-threatening punches while the fliers above settled their differences for the moment and landed.
Lux opened fire on the Dinobot leader with a barrage of rockets from his shoulder mounts.
One slammed Grimlock's right hip, shattering the outer shell, exposing circuitry. The Dinobot advanced, like a crazed animal. He caught one rocket between his teeth and cast it away. He whacked two others with his deadly tail. He shifted to robot mode in record time and sliced several other rockets with his great sword.
At the last slice of his weapon, Grimlock reverted to Dino mode and charged his opponent with all the fury of a rabid bull.
Lux engaged in the game of chicken, storming the ground with his heavy-mauleded footsteps. Grimlock did not hold back. He leapt, lancing feet-first against Lux's invulnerable chest plate. The half-second the Decepticon shock trooper tumbled, Grimlock rolled off and shot away. He took an impossible hairpin turn in his tracks, skidding in the dirt and grasses, leaving a good cloud of dust. But Grimlock lost no momentum and struck again.
Lux stood. A dent cratering into a great crack marred the shock trooper's upper chest where Grimlock planted his feet. Lux produced another energy-mace, this time with longer, deadlier spikes. He crouched as Grimlock neared for another strike and leapt as the Dinobot aimed another assault. Lux cracked the Dinobot's right shoulder. The energy-mace pierced deeply into Grimlock's armored plating. Grimlock roared but stayed his ground. He stapled Lux's hand, sinking his teeth past thick armor plating. With a low snarl, Grimlock shoved his terrible teeth into fuel lines. He tasted bitter, hot Decepticon energon. His jaws snapped pulleys and punctured an infrastructural rod.
Lux growled low at first but when Grimlock cracked the 'bone', he bellowed and tried to throw Grimlock off. But the Dinobot's teeth could not be dislodged and Lux fell, unbalanced by the Dinobot's weight. They rolled, locked arm and shoulder. Lux pounded Grimlock's head with his free hand until he shattered Grimlock's right optical sensor.
Grimlock released the mace-arm and clamped the other hand.
Lux yanked the mace out the Dinobot's right shoulder and sank it into the left side of Grimlock's head.
Grimlock refused to give. He converted pain into primal rage. Landing backward, the Dinobot used his powerful legs to pry the Decepticon off.
Yet agin, Lux went sailing through the air, landing on his feet. His right arm almost fell off.
Grimlock emerged from his Dino mode. The winged plate over his right shoulder sparked and leaked, part of the plating on his back had been bashed in. But Grimlock considered the damage worth the pain he inflicted on his opponent.
"You fight okay," the Dinobot leader tucked a slight smirk in that phrase, "-for little girlie-bot that uses flyswatter."
Lux speared Grimlock, landing head-first into the Dinobot's thorax. Grimlock absorbed the shock of Lux's weight, flipped him off, then 'flipped' him off and returned the charge, this time adding a jump-kick.
Lux caught his right leg and swung the Dinobot around gaining momentum with each circled made. He released Grimlock but did not wait for the Dinobot to recover. Lux shifted down into a tank-like vehicle, complete with steel spiked tires and armored plating.
Grimlock dodged two and three shots from the tank's laser cannon. He shifted back to Dinobot mode and with a great leap, landed heavily on the tank, throwing Lux off his tracks. Grimlock tried to puncture through the armor with his teeth but suffered a nasty surprise when Lux released a high voltage bolt on contact.
Thrown off, Grimlock transformed, landed easily, drew his sword and charged again.
Lux met Grimlock's charge in robot mode, catching the Dinobot's hand as the sword sliced the air. The Decepticon planted a leg into Grimlock's chest and this time it was the Dinobot that flew through the air. But Grimlock used his own flying boosters to prevent the free-fall and with an extra shot of power, slammed his whole body into Lux.
Between the power of Grimlock's force and Lux's mass, the ground under them collapsed and a dust cloud rose, obscuring visual within a hundred-yard radius.
Both sides of the conflicted waited. Who would crawl out the crater? Seconds turned to minutes and still no sign of either warrior. A nervous restlessness passed over both sides as they waited.
Slag called for Grimlock, but dusty silence swallowed his voice.
* * *
As his body moved under Viral influence, Rodimus stalked toward the battlefield. No matter how he tried, he could not break free of Void's control. Magnus, he thought, you should have assassinated me. I'm about to destroy everything.
Where is our supposed god, Primus? Is he asleep? Is he talking to friends? HELLO! Hang up the fucking phone, you brainless, witless bastard! Your underlings are about to die!
Oh. Wait. You played this game with me and Optimus before, didn't you?
Did you know the Matrix is corrupt?
Did you know that Op and me are going with it?
Do you CARE? You should. WHY do you ignore my capacity and ability to wipe out our entire species with a single stroke? Whose stupid idea was it to invest so much power into one device and give it to one person?
As always, Rodimus' question went unanswered. He grieved, knowing the Virus did not care which side its intended victims stood.
The Virus wrapped its darkness about Rodimus like a cocoon. What was Void really after? Was it possible to stop it?
Not at this point, Roddi resigned. He berated himself sorely for his pathetic weakness.
Help, he thought. Kill me, someone. I do not know what I'm about to do.
". . . it took twenty-five years and three hundred seventy-one psychics to break Optimus Prime."
Was Rodimus himself so weak that it only took one Virus to break his will? How pathetic did that make him? Well, actually, there was his other life. An alien from his home dimension ate their Matrix from the inside.
Make no mistake, he and Optimus did not lose their sanity but their life force wilted. The death of the Matrix nearly killed them.
Actually, now that he pondered it, Rodimus supposed that it did. The death of the Matrix took the vitality out of the surviving Autobots. That was why Optimus chose a world where they were safe to live out their lives; he chose a place for them to die.
Rodimus wondered if he and Optimus would have to do the same thing here.
Roddi recalled the causality loop on Earth just before their escape. How many times did he nearly drown? Primus, that felt like a lifetime ago! What kept him from dying?
The Matrix wasn't strong enough.
Before Rodimus could calculate an answer, he arrived upon the chaos and carnage at the battlefield.
Closer to Autobot front lines there lay a great yawning gap in the ground. A crevice stretched at least three and a half football fields long. A great cloud of dust and smoke rose from its bowels.
Rodimus approached Redial who took potshots at a lumbering 'con as it tangled with Doublecross. Prime was going to ask about the crevice when a frightful black shape roared over the battlefield.
It was huge, black, angular; unlike any ship Rodimus recalled from Earth or any other world. Great vents gave it the ability to hover in one place like a helicopter. But the rest of it was definitely space-faring and-as Rodimus wagered-horribly fast.
It shot up, spun once amid filthy clouds then transformed. The black Decepticon shifted and folded to reveal a tall menacing creature, red of optic and emotionless of face plate.
Void shuddered in anticipation. The Matrix Virus felt the Decepticon's core vibrations and smelled the energy signature. Rodimus' optics mirrored the Virus' bloodlust.
Ideas of mutilation took shape and Roddi tried vainly to suppress them. Vile thoughts and evil intents-STOP! STOP!
He was an Autobot, not a Decepticon!
The dark Decepticon spoke, intervening Roddi's private battle: "I AM DECETRON, LEADER OF THE DECEPTICONS. YOU ARE TRESPASSERS ON CRATIS. WE'RE HERE TO WIPE YOU OFF."
Rodimus drowned in Void's darkness. His optics filled darkly and he approached the front lines. Kup stood several yards behind, Magnus further off the right. "I don't remember seeing your name stamped on the planet. Maybe if you heisted your leg a little more often-"
"I WILL NOT SQUANDER WORDS WITH YOU, AUTOBOT SIMPLETON. Hand over your lives now; I will make your deaths swift and painless."
Ooooh! Irresistible challenge! Void clacked its jaws in glee. Rodimus smiled. "Come claim it, Decetron. We don't have anything else to do right now."
"DO NOT INSULT ME, AUTOBOT!!"
Void fed off Decetron's rage and wanted more.
Decetron swept a long finger at the Autobot army before him. "Your arrogance will be your destruction!" he declared.
"And I will be yours." Rodimus vowed with a smile. "AUTOBOTS!" he called and passed his arm toward their enemies, "RIP THEM APART!"
The Autobots raced forward. Doublecross, Titanium and Magnus lead the front. But Titanium attacked first.
Decepticon Archetype took the brunt of that force. He rolled and transformed into a spiked, heavy artillery vehicle. Metal tracks and side-mounted cannons completed his heavy armor. Titanium kicked Archetype's front plates, causing the vehicle to flip up. Archetype transformed to robot and speared Titanium.
At first, the battle field outside the refugee camp resembled a combination of a car dealership and a robotic science fair come to life. But the sounds of bodies crashing, bombs blowing, lasers screaming and battle cries belied the sharp, shiny objects of any vision of metallic beauty or benevolence.
Fists pounded, smashing metal against metal. Cold steel, wrought with agitated power obliterated one body after another, demolishing the ground and sprayed the air with Cybertronian chemicals. The injured fell and rose again, acquiring greater injury. Bombs spewed fragments, flying shrapnel like so much confetti in the waxing Cratian sun. The grassy field, once soft and green, now soaked with oil, fluids and energon, taking the impact of a hundred thousand tons of metal bodies.
The noise of battle scattered wildlife and echoed from the metal forest to the crystal canyon to the edge of the acid waterfront along the east.
The Dinobots took out two great Decepticons, managing to separate limb from limb before Slag ended landed on the critically-wounded list. He kept going, dragging his mangled left leg, limping like road kill struggling to survive.
Sludge took a phenomenal number of hits, delivering deadly carnage with his feet and tail. Twice he managed to widen and lengthen the crater left by Lux and Grimlock. One Decepticon Duocon dropped into the deepest section, dragging Autobot Lightspeed with him.
The Duocon crawled out, leaving Lightspeed a smouldering crumple at the bottom of the grave.
A long-armed baboon with spikes protruding from its head charged through the battle lines like a dancer sidestepping his way across the crowded floor. He aimed straight for Rodimus, but was intercepted by Kup who jumped wide and took three spikes in the side.
Rodimus did not notice. His/Void's optics were set on Decetron who just dismantled all of Snarl's solar plates and broke his tail. With a power kick, Rodimus sent a lunging Pretender manticore through the air and into a fellow Decepticon. In the next breath, the Autobot leader shoved his gun past the lip components of another enemy and blew his head off. As the corpse collapsed, the manticore returned. It leapt over Rodimus, skidded in a sharp turn and nailed him with raking claws. The Pretender shredded Roddi's left arm with its spiked tail.
But Rodimus felt nothing. He grabbed the Decepticon by the jaws and flipped it on its back.
"TO DEMONSTRATE TRUE PREDATOR." Roddi's voice came freakish, unnatural. A dark shape shot out his optics, almost faster than sight, and ripped into the manticore's throat. The alien feline roared uselessly; the next split second, Void plunged its head into the Decepticon's chest, releasing a fountain of fluids and sparks.
The 'Con spasmed and gurgled in agony as its life extinguished to Void's appetite.
Void consumed Rodimus now so that his soul, the spark of the Autobot leader, lay in shackles upon the desecrated landscape within the abyss of the Matrix.
Void's shadow stretched along Cratis' polluted ground, unnoticed by most Autobots and Decepticons. The Virus scavenged the dead, depleting the carcasses of whatever power remained after the extinguishing spark.
Paralell, from Ft. Sagittarius.
Digit from Fort Sonix
Canter from Fort Sonix.
Void surged, its desire bloated with death and chaos. Through Roddi's optics, Void spotted an incoming Decepticon, charging with a great energy axe in hand.
COME. FIND THE DEATH, Void whispered.
Tracer, a Decepticon Particulon, bellowed as he sped ever nearer.
SIMPLICITY IN PREY.
Rodimus held forth the palm of his right hand.
Tracer stopped, freezing every aspect of his form. Something tugged Tracer's breath through his chest. Then he made the mistake of looking the Autobot leader in the optics. Darkness stirred there, something nameless and unspeakable. Worse than a Decepticon's own dreams of torture, mutilation and death. It claimed his name.
"YOU." Roddi soundlessly lipped the words.
Untrained to shield himself from psionic attack, Tracer froze there, gawking in shock until Rodimus' hand landed hard on his shoulder. Tracer gasped with a start.
Rodimus laid his mouth over Tracer's optics and felt the sweet sensation of energy pour into his chest. His laser core pounded and Void inebriated itself with ecstacy.
Rodimus released Tracer-or rather the dead, grey husk and turned to the Pretender pinning Kup to the ground..
"BLOOD THIRSTER. I TAKE YOURS." It was not Rodimus' voice anymore but Void's snarling intonation within the enslaved leader.
At first the Decepticon thought it was Tracer with a bug in his vocalizer. He spotted the Autobot leader approach like the Angel of Death, weapon in hand. The 'Con dropped Kup's injured form and transformed.
Kup pulled his body out of the mud. He watched as Rodimus advanced with stern, powerful footfalls. Roddi's optics were near-black, his body darkened and bloody in color. "No..." Kup's weakened state would not allow him to call for help or save his leader and friend.
No one could.
The Pretender barked a hearty laugh when he saw his form stood two heads taller than Prime. "So THIS is the GREAT Autobot leader! How enigmatically disappointing!"
When Rodimus spoke, it came slow, deliberate and with a slight echo. "SSSEND A MESS-SSAGE TO YOUR BOSS, DECEPTICON."
"Oh! You want me to make a phone call?" the 'Con belched his words to make sure his buddies heard him clearly.
"LISTEN. I SPEAK." the only thing the 'target Decepticon' saw was a blanket of darkness.
But those eight warriors, Autobot and Decepticon alike, watched something far more horrific. Rodimus opened his mouth and out slipped a black spider-like creature. It attached itself to the 'Con's face; two legs about the neck, two about the temples. The Decepticon screamed at the top of his vocalizer but it was muffled. The four-legged beast sank into the con's body. The heavily-armored Decepticon dropped like a dense rock, imprinting the ground with his bulk.
Rodimus fell to his knees and buried his face in his hands. All his energy left him. He hurt in every place conceivable. And never had he felt so horribly empty inside.
Where was Primus now?
We will all die, he thought.
Rodimus no longer cared about the battle, the injured and the dying. He did not care who won or lost, he did not care if he himself lived or died. The whole world around him lost its sound so that to Roddi, he was the only one in the universe.
And he was dying.
"Does it matter?" he asked no one in his mind. "Are we just . . . shadows that wither away? Are we so unimportant that we can be tossed aside like playing pieces when the game is over? Damn you, Primus."
"I can't help anybody. I can't save anyone. I don't have the strength to care."
Optimus' voice whispered through what was yet untainted in the Matrix. Roddi's soul collapsed into Optimus' arms. Physically, he blacked out, heartbroken and completely drained.
Kup tried to radio Magnus for help.
The old Autobot winced when he moved, but move he did inching his way toward Rodimus while Ramhorn charged another Decepticon just a few feet away. The old Autobot warrior managed to reach Prime and he checked for life signs. Fear shook his battered hands and twisted Kup's face into worry. Rodimus lay crumpled like a child, forsaken and injured.
Where was his electro-pulse? Where are his life signs? Kup searched Roddi's face while Swoop dropped bombs on a Duocon just east of his position. Bombs and blasts kept Kup's voice silent. He touched Roddi's face and cringed over Roddi's body temperature.
"Where are you, my friend?" he could only ask himself.
Distantly Kup heard Magnus' horn in truck mode as the Major-General mowed over several Decepticons.
He heard Gryph scream.
They were going to die here, weren't they?
One alarming scream followed another and when Kup lifted his head, his innermost spark screamed, though his vocalizer could not.
A long black leg stretching thirty feet in length reached out the crevice and patted the ground like an insect testing for surety. Tapered to a needle point, the leg was followed by another until the head and chest of the Matrix Virus climbed out the canyon like a trapdoor spider. It stood at least sixty feet high.
It was all most war participants could do to keep their focus.
"WHAT IS THAT THING?!" someone shouted from the distance.
Kup could only stare as he had Rodimus' languid form. Void hissed and turned its eyeless face toward the old Autobot and his leader. It drew its head back, snapped toward the greater throng and sprayed acid on 'bot and 'con alike.
Void stepped further onto the plain and snatched a Duocon between its vertical jaws. It bit down so that fluids sprayed everywhere. It dropped the body and impaled a fleeing Autobot with one leg while it dipped again and swept Rewind between horrible steel teeth.
Void drooled Rewind's remains in several slices.
By the shout of command, a band of Decepticons merged into the ugliest gestalt Kup remembered seeing. It wrought a great sword and charged heedless against the Virus.
Void moved its head this way, that as the weapon tried to sink into its body.
A cold hand touched Kup's arm and relief assailed his face in the form of a smile. "Hello, old friend," he greeted Rodimus. But he did not think Prime heard him.
Indeed, Rodimus heard nothing but the calming sound of Kup's laser core, even if it vibrated radically. Rodimus saw nothing but a sullen sky above them as the sun descended into the horizon.
He lay in peace at the moment, his spark still cradled by Optimus' strength. It was then that Rodimus realized Optimus had arrived on Cratis and probably with them right now.
But what else was going on? Why did Kup seem so distracted?
Rodimus ordered his body to respond to his demands. It took another moment. Most systems remained sluggish from overheating. But Prime managed to pull himself up, even if he could not yet stand.
Then he almost wished he were still unconscious. Roddi's fuel lines ran cold with shock. The Matrix Virus fought with a Decepticon gestalt-with the Virus winning. Parts of the combiner team were fused so that the individual 'cons constructing the towering robot could not disengage if they wanted.
The battlefield in disarray made it difficult for Roddi to make tactical judgment calls. Who was in the clear? Who had resources left with which to fight? Who could Rodimus organize into a new front?
That fucking Virus . . . it forced him onto the battlefield before Rodimus could take on a clear assessment.
Rodimus forced himself up but Kup gently held him back. "Rodimus, you're in no condition to fight."
The Autobot leader stared deeply into the old warrior's optics, those gruff, strong optics that had seen more than their fair share of life. "You know, Kup," Roddi said softly, "no Autobot Prime has ever lived to see your age. I'm really surprised Optimus has lived as long as he has, the Unicronian War not withstanding. If I die, I'll do it with integrity, knowing that I died carrying out my responsibility."
Kup's heart broke as Rodimus struggled to stand on his own. It took so much effort but he was too determined to allow any physical impediment to keep him from doing his job. To be perfectly honest with himself, Kup did not think he could ever take Roddi's place. It seemed when it came to the need of that one last drop of energy, the Matrix, or the Universe or Primus or God saw to it that Autobot leader got it.
The more he moved, the stronger Roddi felt. To his right lay the gapping crater at the bottom of which lay Grimlock and Lightspeed. At the left amassed the carnage; Autobot verses Decepticon, tearing each other apart. Ahead loomed Void, snapping and gnashing its teeth as it played with -yes, played-with the unknown Decepticon gestalt.
"Void," Roddi whispered. "Come play with me."
He knew the Virus heard him. It was there in physical form. It was there in his laser core. It was in his consciousness. It was in the Matrix.
"Bastard," Rodimus snarled at it. "They offer you nothing."
The Virus rocked up on its back legs like a horse and stamped six-foot holes into the ground. With a swipe of its tail, it sliced the Decepticon combiner team in half. Those Transformers; 'bots and 'cons alike who had been assaulting Void with their comparatively diminutive weapons dodged the falling gestalt. Void paid them no more mind and it leapt right for Roddi who did not so much as flinch-even when Void snapped its steel-white teeth just precious millimeters from his face.
Roddi expected to die. What held the Virus back?
It jumped from him to the thickest part of the battle and roared in delight as all fighting broke; all warriors fled before it. Rodimus took two steps, befuddled by Void's behavior.
Then he witnessed why: as Autobots and Decepticons dashed madly, the great sixty-storey Virus inexplicably spit itself into small black discs and shot through those Transformers closest to its range. Every robot touched by the Virus was cored out-literally and figuratively. Their sparks extinguished, their optics melted from their faces. The ground flooded with Transformer fluids and melted body shells.
Decepticon shock trooper Frequous fit his name. He stood at Magnus' height armed with claws, talons and a stinger. Frequous even spooked the Major-General with the ability to shift modes as fast as Blurr. Worst of all were Freq's two hideous faces.
Autobot Rox lay dying from loss of fluids and Frequous would not let up long enough for Magnus to call for help.
Frequous swung, spat, kicked and hissed. Magnus avoided the shock trooper's lumbering steps with ease until Frequous shifted and rammed into the commander's mid section. Magnus grunted with impact as their bodies crashed. Frequous landed a solid punch, caving the left side of Magnus' helm. Magnus delivered a left cross, throwing his entire bulk into it.
Frequous tumbled off and shifted. Magnus rolled and kicked, using his own momentum to thrust his body back to his feet. He just missed a stream of acid from the 'con's scorpion tail.
The tail descended again and one pincer swiped. Magnus jumped to miss the pincer and caught the tail. Freq tried to toss the Major-General but Magnus' bulk gave him the weight he needed to reclaim ground. The nanosecond he touched dirt, Ultra Magnus dragged Frequous in a half circle. But the 'Con wasn't so easily unbalanced and Magnus tugged harder.
Frequous tried to spray the Autobot again but Magnus turned the acid weapon upon its owner.
Too bad it had no affect on Frequous himself.
Lightning cracked the sunset sky, setting the battlefield in a moment of white blaze. A quiet thunder followed until another strike flicked white, then died.
Magnus dragged the shock trooper in a circle as yet another spurt of lightning spit across the field. He spun faster and faster until Frequous was airborne. Magnus let go, drew his weapon and fired until the 'Con was out of range.
It did not take long for Frequous to race back, however. He came for Magnus like a meteorite bent on oblivion. Magnus waited for point-blank range and punched Frequous with everything he had.
The shock trooper spun out of control and crashed in a jumble of arms, legs, claws and several foul-sounding words.
He lay still, counting his segments.
Magnus reset his weapon for wide-shot when he noticed Tektonix had his hands full with the self-proclaimed leader of the Decepticons.
Both Tektonix and Decetron bore their marks of gutted fighting. An ugly rip in Tek's right leg leaked everywhere. Decetron bore a hole in his left shoulder. Tek had lost an optic. Decetron's right audio sensor was mangled.
They held each other in a clasped stalemate, judging strength and weariness until Tek jarred his right knee into Decetron's middle. Decetron bowed with impact before butting his head into Tek's lower mandible.
The moment cost Tek yet another melee when Decetron planted a foot at Tek's central junction.
Lighting riveted across the sky, illuminating blood and refuse littering the battlefield. Bodies lay strewn, unrecognizable shapes in the fading light. Lighting hit again, scratching the sky with its brilliance. But little thunder rumbled afterward.
Tektonix landed on his back, Decetron fired. Tektonix rolled, transformed to armored transport and rammed Decetron. But the Decepticon leader, undeterred, flew straight back and fired one shot after another: BAAM! BAAM! BAAM!
He closed in, firing until he was close enough to kick Tektonix over and he fired at the underside.
Tek had lost so much fluid he could not longer keep transformation.
That was when Magnus was about to fire on Frequous and hesitated. He leapt to Tek's aid and planted his huge feet into Decetron's back. Decetron rolled with him, rolled for control, rolled for the kill. He kicked Magnus off as the Virus roared, leaping from Rodimus to the midst of battle.
Decetron hauled out his weapon one last time. He blew a hole into Magnus' chest then blew Tektonix's head clear off-all that just as he watched the Virus split itself upon and enter all those transformers closest to it.
Void brought itself together and roared triumphantly. Lighting cracked overhead and Cratis stopped rotating, the sun did not set.
Decetron swore profusely, refusing to be cowed by some cheap Autobot tactic. He raised the power setting on his anti-protonic fission discharger and the Decepticon leader fired several powerful shots.
But even Decetron was astonished when Void absorbed the power.
However, the shots infuriated the Virus so that it screeched, sending some Autobots and many Decepticons to their knees.
Cloudstreaker took six blows from the fist of a Duocon. Her whole body hurt especially her optics. She sat, finding her normal vision offline and switched to UV. The lightning storm above the battlefield negatively charged the ionic particles in the air, leaving minute spheres of dark energy. She watched, surprised how some Decepticons absorbed the dark energy.
Decetron fired at Void again, leaving streaks of anti-protonic energy in the air. Void screeched again, damaging more audio sensors. But Cloudstreaker was so distracted by the light-and-energy show, she did not notice.
Another bolt of negative-powered lighting. Another anti-protonic shot from Decetron and in the ground under them lay a deposit of metallic hydrogen.
Cloudstreaker begged for one more strike, one more blast, one more chance. She opened her subspace conduits, leaving a clear channel open for the positive energy flowing from the hydrogen and then the lighting struck, this time just close enough.
Void stomped, furious, impaling a Pretender with one leg. Decetron shot three, four, five times and Cloudstreaker forced all three energies into a pocket, sliding open a temporary subspace plane.
The Virus squealed as its form slammed in implosion and disappeared into thin air.
Decetron took in cooler air. "DECEPTICONS!" he bellowed, "ERADICATE THE AUTOBOTS!"
Jazz took the brunt of four shots first delivered by Frequous. Jazz survived only by a single lucky shot of his own.
Magnus forced his damaged, smouldering frame to transform, no matter how much pain it cost him. He ran into one 'Con, caught in a tangle with Streetwise. An alien inset crunched under his weight. As Magnus passed over it, however, the 'Con lifted Magnus so that he lost traction. The city commander shifted back to robot mode, now realizing it was the last time he could. He wrapped his huge hands around the freakish thing and dodged deadly spit when the bug opened its gaping maw.
Magnus snapped its neck then abandoned it. He tramped on fallen 'cons and stepped around fellow Autobots. "Decetron!" he called, "Come and FINISH your job! You're a disgraceful SLOB on the battlefield!"
Decetron, aiming for the Confiscator, paused. His storm troopers paused alongside him but only Raptor, his head advisor, and Radius, dared a glance back.
"What do you want, Magnus?" Decetron asked loudly. Magnus' words tried his patience.
"A one-on-one. I want to teach you battlefield protocol-"
"NO." and Decetron faced the Autobot city commander. "There was already a one-to-one fight today. AND YOU AUTOBOT LACKEYS LOST!" and Decetron charged with such speed Magnus could only kick the advance. Decetron's thermo-sword nicked his left cheek.
Decetron merely used Magnus' forceful kick as momentum and flew up then back but he was not counting on Rodimus. Prime shot the powerful Decepticon leader away from Magnus.
Go down fighting, Prime told himself. Die with lasers blasting; an honorable death.
The Autobots were finished, anyway. History repeated itself. He failed to prevent it.
A weapon locked, loaded and targeted in his direction. Rodimus dared a glance to the right while Decetron rebounded.
Archetype, a more vile creature than Lux, but smaller, trained a tri-pulsar accelerator anti-proton rifle in his direction
Archetype grinned ugly.
Another shot snapped from Kup's direction distracting Archetype's stomping advance.
The Decepticon rattled his head and contorted his face in confusion. Who shot him? Autobots and Decepticons lay around them dead or dying. He paused, assessing the possibility of an invisible sniper. But Archetype swiftly changed his mind, avoiding Sunstreaker's smouldering form. "Come out, Autobot sniper!" Archetype called, "you cannot hide forever. I like the lucky shot. Come out so I can see you. Come out and play with me! I promise to kill you before I terminate your precious leader! Don't be shy!"
Rodimus waited until Archetype had just passed his position. He leapt over Sunstreaker, kicking Archetype in the side. The shock trooper went down, but caught Roddi's foot. He dragged him down, grinning when Roddi's optics met his at kissing distance.
Archetype sank two rows of fangs into Prime's shoulder. Poison eked into Roddi's joint and he struggled to remain conscious, struggled to maintain his own mind.
Don't give into Void!
Rodimus managed to position his left arm just under Archetype's arm joint and fired. The arm shot off, the Decepticon released him and Roddi pushed away. His vision blurred as his systems warned him of impending lock.
But all Rodimus heard were Archetype's feet as he stomped toward the Autobot leader. Roddi's optics fell dark.
Another spark to claim.
He swung around and shot Arc with the arm weapons. Archetype already had his weapon at the ready and the second Rodimus moved, he fired. The energy from Arc's anti-proton weapon met and canceled Roddi's own Virus-infected shot. The energies canceled each other and in a blinded rage, Rodimus tackled Archetype. The two rolled over bodies, rocks and burnt grass.
"CALL IT OFF!" Decetron ordered, "YOU'LL ALL DIE!"
Archetype managed to lever his legs under the maddened Autobot leader and shot Rodimus off. But Rodimus, possessed by the internal madness, landed easily. He spotted the injured Decepticon laying on top of Blue. He kicked the 'con off, punched his hand into the 'con's chassis and ruthlessly yanked out a handful of circuits, wires and spurting lines. "IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT, DECETRON?!" His scream was not his own. His anger was not his alone. His laser core vibrated hard and fast, pumping poisons throughout his system. "I CAN GIVE IT TO YOU!!"
The Autobots always held themselves to a form of 'forgivable warfare'. They fought, they won, they released POW's. They fought, they lost and rebuilt elsewhere. They always forgave the Decepticons. But this unforseen brutality was beyond the comprehension of every onlooker on the field. This act of barbarism-committed by an Autobot leader- was such a shock that not Archetype, not Decetron, not Ultra Magnus, Raptor or Kup moved for about eight point ninety-three seconds.
Decetron moved first. He trained his weapon on Kup.
Lux climbed out the crevice and spotted a battered Ultra Magnus.
Decetron's weapon reset on command.
Magnus forced himself up with everything he had left.
Archetype retrained his weapon on Roddi.
Lux aimed for a shot at Magnus-this would blow the city commander to pieces.
Decetron's weapon charged.
Rodimus ran to save Kup.
The Virus flinched in confusion.
Magnus set a final rocket to launch at Decetron.
Archetype fired several shots, razing the ground.
Rodimus dodged shots with every footfall.
Decetron's finger lay on the trigger.
Magnus fired the rocket and blacked out.
Archetype's pepper of shots hit Kup and Blue, Fleeter, Cold Front and Wavelength.
A thundering commotion erupted from the south.
But no one paid attention.
Rodimus speared the Decepticon commander in the thorax.
Magnus hit the ground.
Lux's shot missed Magnus by mere microts.
Rodimus assaulted Decetron.
Decetron fired his weapon.
Both plummeted to the depths of the crater's dark maw. . .
. . . and disappeared.